27 April 2020
Iran’s Zarif visits Damascus amid Russian media row
In Depth Analysis
On 20 April, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to Damascus for a face-to-face meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Syrian state media reported that the discussion between Zarif and Al-Assad centered on COVID-19, but also touched on the impact of economic sanctions, Iranian-Syrian bilateral relations, and economic development in Syria. The visit to Damascus is the first by Zarif in more than a year, and it comes amid significant shocks to the Syrian state, including COVID-19 and the rapid deterioration of the Syrian economy. However, the trip also follows several weeks of rare, high-profile attacks on the Government of Syria and the Al-Assad regime itself in Russian-language media. Although analysts debate the meaning — and veracity — of some of the criticisms lodged against Damascus in the Russian press, there is evidence that Russian-Syrian relations are experiencing some strain, as the nations’ respective economic, military, and political ambitions vis-a-vis the protracted Syria crisis seemingly come into conflict. That said, Russian criticisms of the Government of Syria are not wholly without precedent, and it remains premature to draw firm conclusions from Zarif’s visit. However, it is plausible that current conditions may afford an opening for Iran to shape the ongoing conflict and to foster closer rapprochement between Tehran and Damascus.
In recent weeks, the Government of Syria and Al-Assad himself have been targeted for rare public rebuke in a Russian media barrage. The charges have appeared in a variety of Russian media sources, and range from accusations of military ineptitude to damning criticisms of political intransigence and implicit threats over Al-Assad’s future beyond Syrian presidential elections in 2021. Perhaps the most consistently lodged criticism states that the Government of Syria is unwilling to make necessary political concessions or enact needed structural reforms. At core, these accusations paint the Syrian state apparatus as an impediment to political progress in Syria, with knock-on effect for Syria’s economic development and its capacity to normalize external relations and elicit reconstruction assistance from the international community.
Certainly, there is danger in speculating over the precise status of Russian-Syrian relations, which are mercurial and secretive under the best of circumstances. To that end, several of the most acerbic online reports were removed shortly after publication, and some of the reports have been dismissed as the handiwork of malign actors seeking to sabotage Russian-Syrian relations. Ultimately, this claim is unfalsifiable. That said, some signs of friction between the erstwhile allies are clearly visible.
In this respect, the veracity of the reports may be less informative analytically than the record of Russia’s actual undertakings in Syria. The most obvious such actions are in the military sphere, where Russia has long shown its dissatisfaction with the Government of Syria’s toleration of disorder and fractured chains of command. As a result, at multiple points throughout the conflict, the Government of Syria has engaged in Russian-backed initiatives to restructure its disorganized and frequently warring cadres of military and security actors. Perhaps the most visible such outcome was the formation of the 5th Corps. More recently, Russia reportedly pushed the formation of the Syrian Arab Army Office of Human Resources as a means of exercising greater influence over the selection and assignment of military officers, via Russian representatives at the Hmeimim Airbase (see: Syria Update 4-10 July 2019). Moreover, it is believed that Russia is positioned to be the prime mover in the potential reorganization of the entire intelligence and security apparatus. Additionally, since October, Russia has also sought to expand the geographic scope of its influence in Syria. Already influential in southern Syria, Russia has increasingly made strides to cement its influence in the northeast by pitching itself as the indispensable intermediary and long-term strategic partner for local forces there (see: Syria Update 21 April). Naturally, there are limits to the impact of such undertakings, and Russia is by no means empowered to reshape the Syrian military apparatus unilaterally. However, all of these efforts have likely had some impact on Russia’s ambition to break up deep-rooted patronage networks, secure its own military access, and reduce internecine competition among security services and local militias.
Ultimately, Russian-supported efforts to impose order within Syria’s military apparatus and to encourage concessions from the core Syria state are unlikely to pass without resistance. Although the severity of current media attacks may be exaggerated, even a modest rupture in Russian-Syrian relations would likely furnish Iran with an opportunity to advance its own military, economic, and political interests in the country. How this would manifest locally and in higher levels of government is unclear. In general, Iran’s efforts to build ground-level support in Syria have been more carefully calibrated, widespread, and persistent than Russia’s. Moreover, Iranian interests in Syria may dovetail more naturally with those of the Syrian state apparatus than do the interests of Russia. Indeed, Russia appears increasingly impatient over the need for pragmatic political concessions. Such concessions may be necessary to stabilize Syria in the long-term, but they also contravene the Syrian state’s historically maximalist approach to rule. No doubt Russia’s economic stakes are a factor in this row. While Russian interests in asset-stripping and resource extraction may return a profit irrespective of Syria’s international pariah status, many other Russian initiatives require a degree of normalization between Syria and the outside world. Less keen to make such demands, Iran may find itself with more room to operate in Syria, and it may parlay that influence into a more overt spoiler role moving forward.
Perhaps the most obvious area in which Iran hopes to rebuild influence is northwest Syria. Currently, the shaky ceasefire deal in Idleb is guaranteed by an agreement reached between Russia and Turkey, without buy-in from Iran, which was purposefully marginalized by the agreement, despite the fact that Iran-backed militias played a pivotal role in supporting (and in many cases leading) the Government of Syria’s military assault on the ground. For the time being, the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran all publicly stress their commitment to de-escalating northwest Syria. However, without a stake in the deal’s continued implementation, Iran may well see the value in challenging it in a bid to regain a seat at the table as a full-fledged Astana power. To this end, Iran has reportedly encouraged the Government of Syria to break the current ceasefire and resume its bombardment of opposition-held communities, ostensibly in order to claw back control over the M4, if not all of northwest Syria. This outcome is by no means guaranteed, However, there is a risk that if Iran succeeds in exploiting even a small breach between Damascus and Moscow, resumed military operations in northwest Syria may follow.
Whole of Syria Review
1. Makhlouf asset seizure: competition grows as economy contracts
Damascus: On 20 April, Syrian local media areported leaked details of a seizure order targeting assets belonging to a number of prominent Syrians, including the embattled business titan Rami Makhlouf, who is also the cousin and a former personal confidant of Bashar Al-Assad. Government of Syria officials have reportedly charged Makhlouf and associated businesses with corruption over customs violations and smuggling. The charges mark the second time central authorities have targeted Makhlouf in the past four months, and they are the latest probe into Makhlouf since his sudden fall from grace in August (see: Syria Update 29 August-4 September 2019). Makhlouf was also the subject of an asset seizure order in February, due to his purported involvement in a petroleum firm registered in Lebanon. In a rare public statement made at that time, Makhlouf denied accusations of corruption and defended his businesses by emphasizing the role they play by injecting cash into the Syrian economy and providing jobs, in addition to his organizations’ support for humanitarian activities. Relatedly, on 20 April, Makhlouf made a post on his personal Facebook page in which he stated that Egyptian authorities had discovered narcotics in a shipment of dairy products processed by a firm of Makhlouf’s. In the post, Makhlouf accused unidentified individuals of seeking to sabotage the Syrian economy.
Rumors of intrigue at the highest level of the Syrian regime have intensified in recent months, as individual members of the Syrian elite snipe at rivals in the press and seek to undercut their challengers by whatever means of influence are at their disposal. Whatever their basis in fact, these events are most important as indicators of mounting competition among business interests in Syria — including over assets as fundamental as telecommunications services and the network used to process distributions of bread rations. As lucrative war economy activities disappear and the Syrian economy as a whole contracts, these opportunities will become more valuable, thus driving fiercer competition. As Makhlouf’s diminished standing demonstrates, this competition exists at the highest levels, and it will likely impact Syrian business interests abroad. However, unrelenting competition is also seen on the ground level among local armed factions and small private business interests. As overall economic conditions intensify, all of these actors will likely be forced to go to greater lengths to secure their interests, or risk being edged out.
2. Reports: U.S. recruiting independent Arab forces in Al-Hasakeh
Al-Shadadah, Al-Hasakeh governorate: In recent weeks, multiple local media sources have reported that U.S. forces are actively recruiting Arab combatants in Al-Shadadah, southern Al-Hasakeh governorate. According to the reports, the recruits are slated for deployment as local security forces at nearby oil fields. Notably, according to some of the sources, the U.S. recruitment campaign is being carried out independent of the SDF, and salaries are reportedly greater than those paid to SDF combatants. However, despite the detailed and widespread nature of the reports, local sources in Al-Hasakeh deny that a recruitment campaign is currently underway.
U.S. and Russia looking for local partners
Local reports concerning U.S. efforts to establish an Arab fighting force that operates in eastern Syria independent of the SDF command are not uncommon. To date, these rumors have not materialized. The prevalence of such reports now may reflect mounting tensions over Russian recruitment initiatives elsewhere in eastern Syria (see: Syria Update 21 April). Certainly, Russia’s success at framing itself as the indispensable international actor in the region has surfaced doubts over the sustainability of the relationship between U.S. forces and the SDF, and it has cast renewed attention toward the likelihood of eventual rapprochement between the Self Administration and the Government of Syria. Such an agreement is distinctly possible, although Russia and the Government of Syria may indeed be willing to forestall any attempts to force the question of reconciliation until more opportune conditions materialize. Should it take place, a reconciliation between the SDF and Damascus would put the U.S. forces now deployed in eastern Syria in a difficult position. Recruiting independent local partners may be one way of hedging against this eventuality. Moreover, there is precedent for such an arrangement, most notably with Maghawir Al-Thawra and other armed factions at At-Tanf (see: Syria Update 21 April). Theoretically, such a force may be effective in securing vulnerable oil fields. However, the likelihood that it would be capable of deterrence in the face of combined pressure by the SDF, Government of Syria forces, and Russia is dubious.
3. Government of Syria threatens military assault on Kanaker
Kanaker, Rural Damascus: On 18 April, local media sources reported that the Head of Sa’Sa’ Military Security branch convened a meeting with the Kanaker reconciliation committee and local notables. At the meeting, the officer explained the Government’s intentions to put an end to the insecurity and political dissent in the area, located approximately 30 km southwest of Damascus. Reportedly, the officer rejected the possibility of revising the area’s reconciliation agreement and relayed central authorities’ proposal that wanted individuals from Kanaker who remain at large be evacuated outside the country or relocate to opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria. Of note, the general reportedly threatened that the Government of Syria would launch a military operation on Kanaker should the representatives from the community fail to ensure security and meet the demands. Relatedly, news of the meeting comes after a Government of Syria-affiliated TV channel broadcast what it purported were taped confessions made by prisoners from Kanaker, in which they admitted to involvement in recent bombings in Damascus and its vicinity.
As-Sanamayn siege is a template
The Government of Syria’s particular keenness to quell dissent and insecurity in reconciled areas in the vicinity of the capital suggests that a military operation in Kanaker cannot be entirely discounted. Of note, Kanaker has witnessed rare public demonstrations, anti-state graffiti, and attacks on Government of Syria forces in recent months (see: Syria Update 10 December 2019). In effect, what the Government of Syria has threatened is to replicate its blitz on As-Sanamayn — a community that continued to harbor large numbers of wanted individuals in defiance of Damascus (see: Syria Update 9 March). The brief assault on As-Sanamayn ended in the community’s capitulation, including the evacuation of wanted individuals to northern Syria. That said, an assault on Kanaker of the type witnessed in As-Sanamayn is not expected in the near term, as the COVID-19 response has ground nearly all military operations in the country to a halt. That may buy Kanaker time, but on a sufficiently lengthy timeline, the community may have no choice but to agree to forced evacuations, or risk inviting a military assault.
4. Price war heats up as wheat harvest comes into focus
Various locations: Administrative actors across Syria — to include the Government of Syria, the Self Administration, and the Syrian Interim Government — are all setting the prices at which they will purchase this year’s upcoming local wheat harvest. The Government of Syria and the Self Administration have both set the purchase price for wheat at 225,000 SYP per ton. For the Government of Syria, this purchase price is a bump of more than 20 percent over the previous season, while the Self Administration has boosted its bid by more than 40 percent in nominal SYP-terms. Meanwhile, the Syrian Interim Government continues to study pricing but is expected to offer between $225-240 per ton of wheat, equivalent to roughly 292,000-312,000 SYP at current exchange rates.
Seeds of conflict
Wheat remains among Syria’s most important strategic resources. Syria’s parallel administrative structures now face increasing pressure to corner the domestic wheat market. This occurs in a critical context. The sharp devaluation of the Syrian pound has driven Syrian households toward food insecurity, with bread rationing in Government-held areas standing as an ominous indicator of the potential for wide-reaching food shortages. Simultaneously, the credit crunch in neighboring Lebanon has complicated financing for all imports to Syria, including foreign wheat. These factors are likely to be compounded as livelihoods concerns grow in Syria. Wheat producers are, therefore, especially price-sensitive as they demand higher pay-outs to cover rising costs of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizer and machinery.
Not all the indicators are negative, however. For the second consecutive season, Syrian farmers will coast into the harvest on the back of a good rainy season. However, crop fires, wheat rust, and other production shortfalls may yet prevent producers from seeing a bumper crop (see: Syria Update 3 February). With a stronger bid, the Self Administration may be best-positioned to meet local demands and fill its grain silos. However, the northeast’s gain may come at the expense of Government of Syria areas, which remain highly reliant on grains purchased in eastern Syria, or top-ups in the form of foreign imports. Although some Russian wheat has reached Syrian ports this month, these imports have proven extremely difficult to secure.
5. Self Administration opens new COVID-19 facility
Al-Hasakeh city, Al-Hasakeh Governorate: Local sources report that the Kurdish Red Crescent has opened a specialized medical center in Al-Hasakeh city to be used exclusively to treat COVID-19 patients. The center has the capacity to treat 120 patients and is reportedly equipped with a respirator for each bed. A member of the administrative board of the Kurdish Red Crescent indicated that 50 volunteer staff in the center had received technical training from medical experts from Italy and Spain. Relatedly, the Self Administration has established a second quarantine center in Quamishli for individuals coming from Damascus through the Quamishli airport. This new center raises the total number of quarantine centers in Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled areas to four, including two others that are located in Menbij and Salhieh in Deir-ez-Zor governorate.
Damascus remains the northeast’s medical lifeline
Authorities in northeast Syria have been proactive in responding to the spread of COVID-19, yet significant limitations may hamper the effectiveness of the Self Administration’s response. Local sources indicate that social distancing precautions and mobility restrictions remain in effect. However, the area remains dependent upon Damascus-based actors for COVID-19 testing, thus complicating the region’s overall response. The uneasiness of the accommodation between the Self Administration and the Government of Syria was driven home by the recriminations traded over the first COVID-19 death in northeast Syria earlier this month. To that end, it is important to note that access to medical aid and pharmaceuticals was one of the chief casualties of the suspension of direct cross-border humanitarian aid to eastern Syria following the modification of UN Resolution 2165, which has forced the region to rely upon Damascus-based UN support (see: Syria Update 13 January). Moreover, the large camp population is also a foremost concern in the region. As a result, there are fears among implementers that in spite of comparably favorable access conditions, northeast Syria may be uniquely vulnerable to the virus, if it should spread.
6. As-Sweida negotiations committee member killed
Thaala, Sweida governorate: On 20 April, local media sources in As-Sweida governorate reported that Nabil Amer, a member of the recently established As-Sweida-Dar’a negotiations committee, was assassinated in Thaala. Media sources accused local militias of the killing, although no specific groups have been blamed. Locally, Amer was a well-respected figure, and had no known affiliation to any armed factions. However, Amer was a member of the recently established joint negotiations committee that was established to diffuse tensions and foster reconciliation between affected communities in Dar’a and As-Sweida governorates. These negotiations followed the outbreak of pitched clashes between armed factions from inter-governorate border areas in response to mutual kidnapping attempts (see: Syria Update 6 April).
Disorder is the new normal
The reason for Nabil Amer’s killing remains unclear. That said, local sources and As-Sweida-oriented local media indicate that the killing following a robbery attempt, thus casting doubt on the likelihood that it is linked to the work of the reconciliation committee. If true, this would reduce the likelihood that the killing will spoil negotiations between armed groups located across governorates lines in southern Syria. Additionally, local sources indicate that although Amer was widely respected, without overt affiliation with armed factions, his capacity to sway public opinion or to influence communal decision making was limited when compared to religious leadership. This too, blunts the likelihood that the killing will have a large impact on wider political processes. In turn, however, this also casts light on the extent to which disorder has been normalized in As-Sweida, following several months of deteriorating security conditions. Indeed, local sources suggest that the killing of Amer may be one in a string of increasingly notable security incidents in the area, including kidnappings, robberies, and killings.
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? On 16 April, the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued a clarification outlining specific health and COVID-19 exceptions in sanctions targeting several countries.
Reading Between the Lines: Uncertainty has bred confusion over what items are exempt from sanctions. As far as Syria is concerned, Treasury’s guidance provides little by way of new information, and it does little to dispel the uncertainty and baseline fear of unintentional violations, which are the most wide-reaching consequences of sanctions.
Source: Snack Syrian
Date: 21 April 2020
What Does it Say? The leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran continue to discuss the situation in Idleb, stressing that they are all committed to preventing escalation in the region.
Reading Between the Lines: Iran’s marginalization in northwest Syria is a key sticking point to any plan to reach a permanent accommodation in northwest Syria. As the Government of Syria continues to stress, Turkey’s massive military presence in the region may be insufferable, and Government forces may well resume fighting until they have retaken key inter-governorate transit routes.
Source: El Dorar
Date: 22 April 2020
What Does it Say? The public health response mandated by the novel coronavirus are furnishing state and non-state actors across Syria a means to consolidate power, despite the profound economic stagnation.
Reading Between the Lines: Past crises have shown that initiatives required to deal with emergency conditions are often difficult to unwind in post-emergency contexts.
Date: 14 April 2020
What Does it Say? Researchers have discovered malware targeting Arabic-speaking users’ mobile phones, using COVID-19 as a pretext for installing software containing a backdoor to track sensitive information — particularly Syrians.
Reading Between the Lines: Throughout the conflict, the Syrian Electronic Army has been an effective disruptor targeting opposition-linked figures. The latest revelation shows that novel digital to Syrian dissidents threats will remain.
Date: 15 April 2020
What Does it Say? The lockdown in Lebanon resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant difficulties for aid workers to get access to Syrian refugees living in informal shelters.
Reading Between the Lines: The lockdown in the country was meant to slow the spread of the virus. However, this is having adverse health effects on Syrian refugees who rely on aid to acquire necessities, including medical care for other illnesses. This impact demonstrates how Syrian refugees are among the first victims when crises arise.
Source: The New Humanitarian
Date: 21 April 2020
What Does it Say? The once vibrant camel-breeding industry in Tadmor fell to ruin when ISIS seized control of the area. Although ISIS is no longer a powerful or territorial actor, the camel industry has not recovered.
Reading Between the Lines: All walks of life were affected by the conflict in Syria. Livelihoods were shattered beyond repair, and the international community must be cognizant that recovery from loss of land, equipment, and investments will be painfully slow.
Source: The National
Date: 17 April 2020
What Does it Say? U.S. influence has been stretched thin in eastern Syria since the hasty troop drawdown in the region last year. While some forces have returned to the area, they are struggling to regain a foothold.
Reading Between the Lines: The SDF views the pull out as a betrayal by the U.S., which increased pressure on the SDF to strike up a relationship with the Government of Syria. As a result, Russian influence has also grown in the area, at the expense of the International Coalition.
Source: The Soufan Center
Date: 22 April 2020
What Does it Say? ISIS cells have been launching repeated attacks on various locations in Syria’s rural hinterlands, including transit lines and militia positions. Reports state that around 860 confirmed kills of Government of Syria fighters have been registered, with the actual number likely being higher.
Reading Between the Lines: The consistent attacks by ISIS sleeper cells make a return to normalcy far-fetched. Transit lines are continually disrupted, making travel along certain routes risky, disrupting trade, and thus daily activities.
Source: Middle East Institute
Date: 15 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.