Syria Update

4 May 2020
Syria Update Vol3 No17_v02_Page_1
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Syrians go back to business in a shattered economy as COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed

In Depth Analysis

On 29 April, the Syrian cabinet announced a timetable for the relaxation of restrictions that were put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Government of Syria areas. The official statement noted that markets, shops, trade facilities, and dental clinics were among the businesses permitted to resume operation immediately. As of this writing, mass public transportation remains frozen. However, the order allowed for the resumption of travel within governorates, and it opened inter-governorate travel between 30 April and 2 May. Furthermore, the decision allows for restaurants and tourism facilities to return to operation after the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, conditional upon meeting as-yet unspecified requirements. Finally, the announcement indicated that students will sit for national brevet and baccalaureate exams beginning on 21 June.

Syria is not out of the woods yet. Restrictions may return if reinfection occurs, and a localized outbreak of COVID-19 could serve as a pretext for the Government of Syria to lock-down affected communities. Moreover, the possibility of calamitous outbreaks remains a concern, not only in the dismal, overcrowded communities and camps of northwest Syria, but also in the northeast, where camps are also overcrowded, and sanitation remains suboptimal, particularly in areas dependent upon the Alok water station. Additionally, the first confirmed COVID-19 death in northeast Syria is a grim reminder that the virus is likely far more widespread in Syria than official tallies indicate. The international Syria response must remain cognizant of long-term health needs, barriers to access, and crossline coordination challenges that will persist long after current restrictions are relaxed. Indeed, the impact of the lockdown will likely be felt for some time. To that end, on 29 April, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock briefed the UN Security Council that COVID-19 is a “multiplier of humanitarian needs.”

Syria Update Vol3 No17_v02_Page_1
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This is especially true of Syria’s ruined economy. Arguably, it is Syria’s economy that has felt the greatest impact of COVID-19, and response actors must anticipate a significant and prolonged rise in livelihoods and material needs in Syria. Indeed, labor opportunities will likely remain scarce long after mobility and commercial conditions normalize. In parallel, alternate means of support such as foreign remittances are also shrinking, thus raising the stakes for Syrians who have been forced out of the anemic labor market. Meanwhile, shortages of basic goods are distinctly possible, and prices continue to rise as the Syrian pound depreciates amid regional economic turmoil. Although traditional econometrics are in short supply in Syria, the Government of Syria’s sensitivity to economic pressures indicate that the nation’s deteriorating economy is an issue that is near its flashpoint. Indeed, it is understood that lobbying by business interests was among the drivers that pushed the “Governmental Committee for Coronavirus Response” to issue the first orders to jumpstart economic activity despite public health implications, when it allowed small enterprises operating in a multitude of sectors to reopen at reduced capacity earlier this month (see: Syria Update 21 April).

One narrow area in which economic impacts are especially pronounced is wage loss. Throughout the shutdown, the Government of Syria has guaranteed the wages of state employees. This has mitigated the suffering of many Syrians, given that the Government of Syria operates an expansive state apparatus designed to guarantee livelihoods. As a result, approximately two-third of Syrians receive Government salaries. However, private-sector workers have received no such guarantees throughout the lockdown. According to the latest-available data from the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics, 31 percent of workers are in the private sector. Many of them have reportedly seen wages slashed due to Syria’s economic contraction during the pandemic. Among private-sector workers, the most deeply affected are the estimated 1.15 million so-called ‘independent laborers’, who have likely lost significant income due to the stoppage of short-term and informal labor market activities. As lockdown conditions gradually return to normal, commerce will pick up. However, many Syrians will continue to suffer the effects of lost wages. Meanwhile, Syria’s economy continues to deteriorate, thus placing these workers — and all Syrians — under greater economic stress.

For a full assessment of the economic impacts of COVID-19 on Syria, please see our latest report: Syria after COVID-19: No relief for an ailing economy.

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol3 No17_WebMap

1. Massive blast rocks Afrin

Afrin city, Aleppo governorate: On 28 April, media sources reported that a fuel truck detonated in Afrin, resulting in at least 46 deaths and 47 injuries, predominantly among civilians. Later that day, officials in Turkey’s Hatay province announced that Turkish security forces had arrested an individual suspected in the attack. Reportedly, the individual is linked to the YPG, the Syria-based Kurdish militia that has deep ideological connections to the PKK. Meanwhile, SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi and the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu publicly traded accusations, after Abdi accused Turkish-supported groups of executing the attack.

Afrin has a history of violence

The scale and destructive power of the Afrin blast mark a considerable escalation when compared with previous IEDs and VBIEDs in the area. However, despite ramped-up security precautions in the area, the event is unlikely to signal a turning point in the governance of Turkish-controlled northern Aleppo, or overall relations between Syria’s Kurdish armed groups and Turkey. Of note, Afrin is a former stronghold of the PKK, and for decades it was used by the group as a base from which to plan and execute insurgent attacks against Turkey. Of note, Turkey captured Afrin and displaced much of its resident Kurdish population in Operation Olive Branch, which Syrian Kurds view as an act of aggression driven by political ideology and vengeance, rather than military expedience. As a result, the area remains a flashpoint in relations between Turkey and Syria’s Kurdish factions. That said, it is by no means certain that a PYD-linked actor carried out the attack. Indeed, the inability of Turkish-backed armed groups to secure the area amid significant infighting has also left open the door to ISIS attacks in northern Aleppo, as well as general lawlessness. Indeed, on 26 April, local sources indicate that members of Ahrar Al-Sharqiya raided the office of a local NGO in Afrin and assaulted staff, following a dispute over issues related to a shared office building. More generally, it is believed that Russia and Turkey have together sought to resolve some points of contention between the YPG and Turkey, including by expelling the YPG from nearby Tel Rifaat, which has provided a westward base of operations for the YPG, including for attacks in Afrin. So far, this has not borne fruit, and asymmetrical violence is likely to continue in northern Aleppo communities.

2. HTS trade with the Government meets resistance from Turkey, civilians

Idleb governorate: On 29 April, media sources reported that Turkish forces reopened the Maaret Elnaasan-Mezanaz road, after briefly closing it to prevent Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham from opening a commercial crossing with Government of Syria-controlled areas. Local sources in northwest Syria indicate that civilians have protested against HTS’s apparent hopes to open an additional crossing with the Government of Syria near Saraqab, and there are suggestions that HTS may resort to opening a crossing point in Atareb. Between 30 April and 2 May, large public demonstrations took place in Idleb city, Kafr Takharim, and IDP camps nearby Atma in response to these plans, and HTS reportedly quelled the dissent by firing to disperse the crowds. According to local sources and local reports, civilians in the region oppose the opening of cross-line trade for a variety of reasons, including fears of the spread of COVID-19, resistance to perceived normalization of the Government, and concerns over the limited economic benefit to be seen in the local economy. In response, HTS has reportedly justified its ambition to resuscitate trade with Government of Syria areas as a response to the demands of local traders and industrialists seeking additional markets. Relatedly, on 26 April, local sources also reported that HTS shelled a Turkish observation point in Nayrab, after which Turkish forces killed three HTS members who were purportedly responsible for the attack.

Is HTS playing hard to get? 

The tensions in northwest Syria hold a magnifying glass up to the pragmatic cooperation between Turkish forces and HTS, which ultimately focuses attention on HTS’s long-term strategic trajectory. The apparent row over crossline trade follows repeated attempts by HTS to halt joint Turkish-Russian patrols along the M4 highway (see: Syria Update 16 March). This obstruction has brought HTS into conflict with Turkey at a time in which the organization has been at pains to demonstrate its continuing utility to Turkey as a valuable partner on the ground (see: Syria Update 21 April). Tensions with the local community undermine HTS’s claim to unique effectiveness in Idleb. However, past experiences cautions against reading too deeply into any the latest flap between HTS and Turkey. The resumption of crossline trade with the Government of Syria is unlikely to signal that HTS is willing to jeopardize its relationship with Turkey to normalize ties with the Government of Syria. In this sense, commercial concerns are likely a factor in the move, perhaps a key factor. More importantly, there are no signs of categorical Turkish opposition to crossline trade with the Government of Syria. Indeed, crossline trade does occur from Turkish-controlled Euphrates Shield areas, where it has also been halted to inhibit the spread of COVID-19. As such, the row over the crossing points may fade with the relaxation of mobility restrictions. However, the more critical question of how HTS can maintain its relationship of convenience with Turkey is more open-ended, and will also be shaped by HTS’s own internal strife and struggles to maintain popular support locally.

3. Israeli Defense Minister touts new strategy to ‘expel’ Iran from Syria

Damascus: On 28 April, Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly stated that Israel had entered a new, more assertive phase of its regional military campaign against Iran. During a press conference with Israeli reporters, Bennett stated that Israel “is not merely resisting Iranian entrenchment actions in Syria, but we have moved decisively from resistance to expulsion, by which I mean the expulsion of Iran from Syria.” Notably, the statement came only hours after the Government of Syria charged Israel with responsibility for an airstrike outside Damascus in which three civilians and four Iran-linked militiamen were reportedly killed.

‘Whack-a-mole’ strategy has limits

Certainly, Bennett’s statements should be seen against the backdrop of regular Israeli attacks in Syria in recent weeks. It is not clear whether these events truly signal a step change in Israel’s military strategy to confront Iran, as Tehran seeks to capitalize on apparent tension between Damascus and Russia to grow its own already considerable influence in Syria (see: Syria Update 27 April). Domestic considerations within Israel are important. Bennett stands at the bleeding edge of Israel’s hard right, and he has frequently pulled comparatively centrist figures, to include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rightward. As such, Bennett’s remarks have an obvious political valence in Israel’s domestic political discourse, which may outweigh their relevance as an expression of military doctrine. That said, uprooting Iran from Syria is both likely to be an Israeli priority and all but impossible, in practical terms. There are practical limitations to the use of airstrikes to decisively eradicate expansive, decentralized insurgent networks. Any such military campaign by Israel could impose greater costs to the Iranian presence in Syria, particularly in southern Syria, but there are clear limitations to what this strategy could actually achieve. Notably, stepped-up Israeli attacks may also force the Government of Syria and its allies (especially Russia) to evolve greater defensive capabilities.

More important yet is the fact that Iran has already paid a heavy price, financially and in terms of personnel, to sustain the Government of Syria throughout the conflict, and will not readily turn its back on the context. Several considerations are important in this respect. First, Iran-linked militias are distributed throughout Syria and are not limited to a small number of easily targeted strongholds. Second, these militias consist of combatants from a multitude of national backgrounds. Among them are many Syrians who cannot readily be ‘expelled’ from the country. Third, Israel cannot reasonably expect to achieve this objective by force of arms alone. Iranian influence in Syria is deep-rooted, and it radiates well beyond identifiable command structures. In addition to military commanders and combatants, many civilians are also nominally supportive of, or directly linked to, Iran, which is particularly true as economic conditions drive communities and individuals toward military recruitment. Fourth, Iran has decisively backed the Syrian state apparatus itself. The degree to which this is directly intertwined with the regime of Bashar Al-Assad is not always clear, but there is no doubt that Iran has deep influence in state institutions that will translate to long-term influence in Syria.

4. As-Sweida-Dar’a tensions flare amid fresh clashes

Salkhad, As-Sweida governorate: On 27 April, local sources indicated that inter-governorate tensions between As-Sweida and Dar’a flared as a result of an attack by As-Sweida-based combatants on 5th Corps military positions in Busra Al-Sham. The intense clashes involved heavy weapons, and resulted in the death of one fighter from As-Sweida, and injuries on both sides. As per previous incidents in the string of clashes, Russian military police intervened to quell the fighting. Relatedly, on 26 April, media sources reported that local armed combatants supported by the Government of Syria launched an operation targeting ٍSheikh Al-Karama forces in Salkhad, in southern As-Sweida governorate. Reportedly, three people were killed during the campaign, and four were handed over to security intelligence.

Turmoil likely to continue

Tensions between As-Sweida and Dar’a have persisted since the mutual kidnapping attempts culminated in armed clashes in late March. Now, the recurrence of armed clashes targeting 5th Corps positions highlights the fact that reconciling tensions between As-Sweida and Dar’a will not be quick or easy, especially because the clashes have clear local drivers that are resistant to negotiated settlement. The killing of one member of the negotiations committee formed specifically to achieve this end is one setback to the incipient undertaking (see: Syria Update 27 April). Russia’s role as a mediator may be key to bridging insuperable gaps between the communities. However, as we noted when the tensions first reached the boiling point, Russia’s actual influence in As-Sweida is limited (see: Syria Update 6 April). The clashes in Salkhad demonstrate the extent to which influence in As-Sweida remains contested Although As-Sweida has not seen the level of seemingly wanton violence that has plagued Dar’a, localized clashes are increasingly developing into security incidents in the relatively insular governorate. As unstable conditions persist, the Government of Syria is among the actors that will attempt to capitalize on localized insecurity to punish its antagonists, including factions such as Sheikh Al-Karama forces.

5. Makhlouf and Syriatel under fire in $180 million tax scandal

Damascus: In quick succession, disgraced Syrian mogul Rami Makhlouf has made two rare public appeals for support as his business and personal interests come under fire and he confronts President Bashar Al-Assad directly. On 1 May, Makhlouf published a video on Facebook, in which he delivered a plaintive appeal to Al-Assad to personally intervene to prop up Syriatel, the country’s premier telecoms provider, of which Makhlouf is the chief stakeholder. The video comes after the Regulatory Authority for Communications and Mail in Syria published a decision holding Syriatel and the rival firm MTN accountable for unpaid taxes amounting to 233.8 billion SYP (approximately $180 million), although details concerning the firms’ respective arrears are unclear. In the video, Makhlouf stated that he is willing to pay the “injurious” penalty of 130 billion SYP (approximately $100 million), yet he pleaded for leniency for the sake of Syriatel’s employees and asked that Al-Assad intervene to personally safeguard the money, due to his lack of confidence in lower-ranking officials. However, on 3 May, Makhlouf shared another video in which his tone escalated significantly. In the latter video, Makhlouf stated that state security had begun to arrest Syriatel employees, and he adjured the president to issue stand-down orders, lest Syria face “inevitable divine retribution.”

Crash of the titan

Makhlouf is increasingly under pressure for a host of alleged business predations, including charges that Syriatel artificially masked revenues and dodged taxes by inflating costs that were billed through subcontractors controlled or owned by Makhlouf (see: Syria Update 27 April). Reading the shifting indicators of palace intrigue among Syria’s business and political elite is a fraught exercise. That said, Makhlouf’s latest appearances are evidently designed to curry public favor and pressure Al-Assad. In so doing, Makhlouf has adopted decidedly religious overtones, and he has linked his own ‘unjust’ treatment to the injustices faced by the community as a whole. It is debated whether the community Makhlouf intends to reach is Syria’s powerful Alawi elite. Makhlouf has long presented himself as a protector of Syria’s Alawis, including through the activities of his Al-Bustan Association, although his record in this role is checkered. Without doubt, the videos signal an inflection point in Makhlouf’s slow-motion fall from grace. Now, knives are drawn, and further escalation in this war of words is likely as all parties seek to rally public support and tar their enemies.

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.

The EU needs a new Syria strategy

What Does it Say? Lacking a presence on the ground, the EU has failed to meaningfully shape the course of the Syria conflict. In turn, the expansiveness of the international intervention in the conflict has compounded the EU’s inability to bring about desired changes in the conflict. 

Reading Between the Lines: In the long term, response actors will be forced to contend with the reality that the Government of Syria as all but won the conflict. The author argues for a targeted approach using sanctions relief, limited rehabilitation of critical infrastructure, and livelihoods supports to ameliorate the most pressing economic concerns.

Source: International Politics and Society Journal

Language: English

Date: 27 April 2020

Jeffrey to Asharq Al-Awsat: Russia Is Aware What Kind of Ally It Has in Syria

What Does It Say? In a wide-ranging question-and-answer, U.S. special representative James Jeffrey lays out the U.S. fundamental, unchanging opposition to normalization of regional relations with the Government of Syria. 

Reading Between The Lines: Jeffrey throws cold water on recent regional initiatives to re-engage Damascus, and he is unequivocal regarding the U.S.’s position on Syria: no re-engagement is possible without a change to the Syrian state itself.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

Language: English

Date: 2 May 2020

The magic word ‘Arabs – Kurds: Russian-American competition for the eastern tribes

What Does it Say? The article lays out the contours of U.S. and Russian competition to gain the trust and allegiance of tribes in Hasakeh and Deir-ez-Zor.

Reading Between the Lines: There is debate over the actual extent of such recruitment efforts. However, there are good reasons for the U.S. and Russia to seek partnerships with local tribes in eastern Syria, including as a denial strategy to keep the other side from gaining high ground in the human terrain.

Source: Al-Akhbar

Language: Arabic

Date: 28 April 2020

Turkey: Alok’s water was repeatedly used as a weapon during the COVID-19 pandemic in Syria

What Does it Say? Turkey continues to intermittently cut off the Alok water station, thus depriving more than 600,000 people in eastern Syria access to clean water.

Reading Between the Lines: The battle over the Alok water station is understood as one front in Turkey’s slow-burning contest with Syria’s Kurdish forces, yet the timing is particularly notable, given that WASH infrastructure is especially critical to containing the spread of COVID-19.

Source: Syrian for Truth and Justice

Language: Arabic

Date: 28 April 2020

Drugs flow from Syria to Arab countries

What Does it Say? Various Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have reportedly stopped massive shipments of drugs entering from Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: Syria has long been the epicenter of the regional drug trade, as armed groups sought means of financing their conflict activities. As the conflict winds down and alternate economic opportunities lag, there is a risk of reaching an inversion point, at which Syria’s drug traffickers resort to increasing levels of violence to protect their narcotic activities. The resulting trade will not be limited to the region alone, but will also wash up on European shores.

Source: Al Modon

Language: Arabic

Date: 29 April 2020

Syria: Aid restrictions hinder COVID-19 response

What Does it Say? The restrictions on aid delivery coming from Damascus and Iraq have seriously hampered access for aid organizations seeking to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in northeast Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: Although the COVID-19 pandemic is the most urgent demonstration of the ‘new normal’ for aid actors working in northeast Syria, these conditions will also place limitations on access for future response activities.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Language: English

Date: 28 April 2020

The transformation of the Iraqi-Syrian border: from a national to a regional frontier

What Does it Say? The Abu Kamal crossing on the Syria-Iraq border has become a flashpoint for conflict between Iran and its allies and the U.S. and Israel.

Reading Between the Lines: This crossing will remain a hotspot as conflict between Iran and Israel continues to escalate.

Source: Carnegie

Language: English

Date: 31 March 2020

The Communications Authority Demands Syriatel and MTN pay around 234 Billion SYP

What Does it Say? The telecommunications authority in Syria has informed both Syriatel and MTN that they are required to pay a sum to ‘balance their licenses’. The combined sum to be paid by both companies amounts to 233.8 billion SYP.

Reading Between the Lines: The ambiguity of the order and the vast sum of money involved speak to the enormity of corruption within the state apparatus.

Source: Al Iqtisadi

Language: English

Date: 27 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.