11 May 2020
As Syria conflict slows, old partnerships fray
In Depth Analysis
In recent weeks, high-profile Russian media criticisms of the Government of Syria have drawn attention to the widening rift between the Government of Syria and its most important backer, Russia (see: Syria Update 27 April). Although many of the media attacks against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have been discredited as specious or unsubstantiated, claims concerning Al-Assad’s post-conflict fate are notable, particularly because they have appeared with arguably greater frequency and intensity than at any point in the conflict. The attacks have rightly garnered significant attention among Syria analysts. However, it is important to note that Russia and Syria are far from the only conflict actors whose relations have grown tense as the pace of the conflict has slowed and war aims have diverged. These tensions exist on multiple dimensions: within the Syrian regime, between regional powers and their local partners, and among the Astana powers themselves — i.e. Russia, Iran, and Turkey. As such, the media blitz against Al-Assad is likely a symptom of a deeper, more fundamental issue that will impede efforts to resolve the conflict. Indeed, the publicly surfacing tensions are a signal that partnerships that formed over mutual interests have unraveled as parties to the conflict have found themselves increasingly at odds, thus confounding efforts to wind down the conflict and resolve its thorniest questions.
Tensions exist on all levels
Tensions are apparent on multiple axes. Inside the Syrian regime itself, disgraced business titan Rami Makhlouf is waging an increasingly public battle for the support of Syria’s ruling elite through guttersnipe media attacks on his cousin, Bashar Al-Assad. In Idleb, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham is currently challenging rival factions and managing a dissatisfied public, as it seeks to demonstrate its continuing, though uncertain strategic utility to Turkey. In the northeast, the inconsistency of U.S. public messaging on Syria has dented the American partnership with Syrian Democratic Forces, whom Russia has sought to woo in an attempt to expand its own footprint east of the Euphrates. Meanwhile, in recent weeks, Russia has vocalized unprecedented dissatisfaction with the Government of Syria and Al-Assad in particular. In response, Syrian officials, including a member of parliament, have leveled previously unthinkable criticisms of Russia, whose support to the Government of Syria has been an essential lifeline. Now, prominent Syrians have begun to express anger over Russia’s refusal to provide humanitarian or economic support amidst Syria’s economic collapse. They have also questioned the touchstone of Russia’s support to Syria: direct military assistance — in particular the deliberate neutering of Syrian air defenses despite relentless bombardment by Israeli aircraft (see: Syria Update 4 May). Some have gone so far as to suggest that Russia is withholding support in a deliberate bid to undermine Al-Assad.
At the same time, the Astana powers are also at odds amongst themselves. This is likely both a cause and an effect of the slowdown in the pace of the conflict. The creation of the Astana negotiations format in late 2016 was a watershed moment in the Syria conflict, and it ultimately brought Russia, Turkey, and Iran into a cooperative framework that reduced overt frictions and forestalled direct clashes among the powers. In terms of political legitimacy, the process has been contested, despite its critical role in facilitating negotiations with the opposition. Militarily, however, the format has arguably served as the most effective force shaping the overall strategic direction of armed conflict in Syria. By bringing together the most important international actors to the conflict, the Astana format gave force to the ‘de-escalation zone’ framework that has been critical to the Government of Syria’s territorial ascendance. Most notably, the platform sustained the Government of Syria’s divide-and-conquer strategy and the widely imposed reconciliation tactics, which restored Government control over southern Syria, northern rural Homs, and Eastern Ghouta.
Lately, however, the Astana format has lost momentum as the powers have struggled to find sufficient common ground to resolve more nuanced challenges in which their interests are overtly at odds. Two such challenges are especially pertinent. First, Iran’s exclusion from the 5 March Idleb ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia has called attention to the fact that the Astana format has purposefully marginalized Iran in northwest Syria, where the Russian-Turkish accommodation fails to satisfy Iran’s ambitions to support the Government of Syria’s recapture of all Syrian territory. Second, limitations to the powers’ actual control over local partners has also sabotaged negotiated outcomes. It is by no means certain that any of the Astana powers has adequate leverage to force local partners or proxies to comply with deals reached in the Kazakh capital, recently renamed from Astana to Nur-Sultan. This limitation was likely a factor in the collapse of northwest Syria ceasefires reached in late 2019.
Without doubt, tensions among the Astana powers have always existed. However, the conflict has changed, and the Astana format has yet to change with it. This is evident in the diminishing returns of Astana process conferences. On 22 April, the three powers called a virtual Astana summit to revive discussions concerning the overall arc of the conflict. The talks failed to produce meaningful agreement, and in place of a joint statement, Russia and Turkey released contradictory individual statements that testified to their diverging views of how to wind down the Syria conflict. In its statement, Russia emphasized the primacy of the Government of Syria, denounced HTS, reaffirmed the need “to separate the moderate opposition in the Idleb area from the terrorists,” and called for the suspension of sanctions on Syria, ostensibly to facilitate a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. By contrast, the Turkish statement emphasized Turkey’s view that Resolution 2254 envisages a far more comprehensive process than constitutional reform alone, and it called for greater inclusion of opposition actors, who are supported by Turkey. Meanwhile, Iran has reportedly been agitating for the Government of Syria to break the Idleb ceasefire.
Still backing Bashar?
The fading relevance of Astana outcomes is ultimately due to the powers’ diverging conflict aims. In the long term, Russia likely intends to foster a stable, governable Syrian polity that will not degenerate into open conflict, and thus require future military intervention. This will require political advances that will lift sanctions and strip Syria of its pariah status in order to woo international reconstruction assistance — whether from Western powers or other international actors, particularly in the Gulf. Certainly, Russia will also seek to cash in on its intervention. While some activities, such as extractives, do not require political normalization or wider stabilization, others will. Turkey’s ambitions are less clear. Northern Syria border areas that are occupied by armed factions supported by Turkey are now deeply integrated into the administrative and service networks of corresponding Turkish provinces. Turkey has also attempted to bring about regime change in Syria, and normalization of bilateral political relations will be difficult without a change in Syria’s political leadership. Iran’s interests, like Russia’s, blend long-term considerations toward economic interests and direct influence.
At root, Bashar Al-Assad is himself likely to be an impediment to the post-conflict aims of the Astana powers. Observers have frequently pointed to the upcoming 2021 presidential elections as an opportunity for Al-Assad to step down through routine procedural means. Similar speculation surrounded the last presidential elections, in 2014, when Al-Assad presided over an embattled, piecemeal state that was in even greater jeopardy of falling in the face of the combined pressure of opposition forces and radical groups. Al-Assad won 88.7 percent of the vote. Now, Al-Assad’s military position is improved considerably, yet he faces a direct political challenge inside the Syrian state apparatus that is arguably more intense than at any point in the conflict. However, he is likely to remain defiant, particularly if his only alternative to remaining in office is to face accountability for wartime abuses. A more fundamental question also remains unanswered: who can fill Al-Assad’s shoes? Discord and division within the Syrian regime ultimately empower Al-Assad. Tensions between Al-Assad and Makhlouf expose rifts among the ruling elite, which impede any effort to find a consensus alternative to Al-Assad. Makhlouf is a highly divisive symbol of Syria’s corrupt mismanagement. The most frequently discussed challenger from the military, Suheil Al-Hassan, has been humbled by frequent reshuffling between fronts. As with the challenges facing the Astana powers, finding a successor to Al-Assad is vexing precisely because no obvious solution is apparent. As long as that remains the case, Al-Assad will likely continue to divide and conquer, and he will remain the ‘only option’ on the table.
Whole of Syria Review
1. SDF mobilization spikes as economic decline continues
Al-Hasakeh: Local sources in Al-Hasakeh city report a pronounced spike in the pace of voluntary recruitment to various military and security forces in the Self Administration throughout the past two months. Total recruitment numbers are naturally difficult to verify. However, these sources estimate that 6,000 requests to join SDF and Asayish units have been submitted from Al-Hasakeh city and nearby rural areas in this period, whereas the number of petitions to other security forces is unknown.
For want of a steady paycheck
Although exact recruitment numbers are difficult to pin down, a pronounced spike in military and security force mobilization in the Self Administration is likely a signal of the area’s deepening socio-economic destitution, rather than a newfound popular acceptance of the policies of the Self Administration itself. As such, the mobilization is better thought of as a sudden spike in jobs claims reflecting worsening livelihoods needs. In response, job-seekers have sought out one of the few institutions in the region that has been resilient in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, local sources indicate that in the period corresponding to the rise, the Self Administration has not adopted new policies or political messaging that would increase the inherent appeal of military or security service, or bridge gaps that exist with predominantly Arab areas that fall under its control. While the cause of the spike in recruitment is relatively unambiguous, its consequences are harder to foresee. Substantive changes to the Self Administration, SDF, or other security forces are not likely to follow. However, a significant boost to the ranks of these forces will bolster the positions of northeast Syria’s semi-autonomous political structures, following months of rocky negotiations with Damascus, and increasingly bold outreach by Russian forces who have rushed to fill the void left by U.S.-led coalition forces. In the long term, expanding the ranks may give the Self Administration more backbone in future talks with Government of Syria negotiators.
2. Iran wins oil rights as Syria pays back wartime credit line
Abu Kamal, Deir-ez-Zor governorate: On 6 May, media sources reported that the Government of Syria Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources had granted Iran petroleum exploration rights in Block 12 in eastern Deir-ez-Zor governorate, near Abu Kamal. The contract reportedly dates to January, but has only now surfaced. Of particular note, rather than conferring exploration rights to a private Iranian company, the agreement explicitly states that it comes as partial repayment for the credit line which Iran has extended to Syria throughout the conflict. This is the first instance in which repayment of the credit line has been publicly raised via Government of Syria action. It is not immediately clear which area is covered by the contract. Previously, a Russian company had reportedly been awarded a contract for an area described as Block 12. However, the two contracts list differing sizes for the oil fields in question.
Iran’s support has not come cheap
Why exactly Block 12 has slipped from Russian to Iranian hands is not immediately apparent. Russian companies have built up their presence in Iraq’s neighboring Anbar province, suggesting their intention to expand — not shrink — their influence in the immediate region. Moreover, some analysts have noted that Russia is positioning itself to play a pivotal role in an Iran-Iraq-Syria oil pipeline. Because the announcement comes at a time of tension between Russia and Syria, there is temptation to read the announcement as a bellwether of that relationship. However, the fact that the deal was inked in January discounts this possibility. It may simply be the case that Iran has shown a better claim to the field. The block sits in the restive Syria-Iraq frontier, where Iran-linked forces are deeply entrenched and would pose long-term security and social risk to a Russian presence. Meanwhile, crucial details of the deal remain unknown, and the division of outputs is unclear, a potential sign that Iran will reap the lion’s share, at the Government of Syria’s expense. Ultimately, the deal is a reminder that Syria will be forced to pay back its wartime debt to Iran — perhaps soon. In the absence of cash in state coffers, Syria may have no choice but to turn over more hard assets.
3. Kharba IDPs return through Russian mediation
Kharba, Sweida governorate: On 2 May, local sources reported that IDPs from Kharba village, in western rural As-Sweida governorate, returned to their homes after eight years of displacement. According to these sources, their return was made possible following Russian facilitation via Christian religious figures and members of the community. Of note, throughout the conflict, Kharba was inhabited by bedouins, who sought refuge in the village. They were given notice to vacate the area to facilitate the return of its original inhabitants.
Russia eyes larger role in southern Syria
Russian mediation to facilitate the return of the Kharba IDPs is largely unprecedented, particularly given the length of displacement. However, it is unclear whether the actions could provide a template for future mediation efforts and ultimately pave the way for a more significant Russian role in social and economic matters in southern Syria. As a guarantor of the southern Syria reconciliation, Russian forces have mediated and facilitated negotiations between the Government of Syria and opposition forces and community representatives in Dar’a on multiple occasions. However, their ultimate effectiveness in this role has fallen short of expectations (Syria Update 9 March). More recently, Russian representatives have also sought to establish a similar mediation role in As-Sweida (Syria Update 6 April). The return of Kharba IDPs is likely the most tangible outcome of Russian efforts in As-Sweida. However, demographic factors may point to the reason Russia’s mediation was effective in this context. Kharba’s original population is predominantly Christian, a community over which Russia has sought to exercise a guardianship role. In either case, whether Russia can expand its influence to safeguard the return of IDPs and refugees likely hinges on its local ties and access to intermediaries, which casts doubt on the universal applicability of this role (See: Intermediaries of Return).
4. Mzeirib executions prompt Government escalation
Mzeirib, Dar’a governorate: On 5 May, local media sources reported that nine Government of Syria soldiers were publicly executed in Mzeirib. The soldiers had reportedly been kidnapped from the police station in Mzeirib when opposition forces attacked the building. According to local sources, the killings were an act of revenge after two former opposition fighters were kidnapped and found dead several days later. Government of Syria officials have met with local notables in the area, demanding that those responsible for the killings be handed over, or the community will face consequences. Relatedly, local and media sources reported that the Government of Syria had deployed a large military convoy to the region in response to the killings.
No easy way out
The deployment of a military convoy to Mzeirib marks the latest in a series of localized episodes in which the Government of Syria has threatened — or actually used — concerted military force to impose security in a restive community in south or central Syria. The most notable such incident came in As-Sanamayn, where a brief Government blitz flattened opposition and resulted in a novel reconciliation deal in the community (see: Syria Update 9 March). In the case of As-Sanamayn, irreconcilable fighters were permitted to evacuate from the community to northwest Syria. No such option is likely to be available for wanted opposition-affiliated figures in Mzeirib, where reconciliation has already taken place. Without such an option to act as a safety value to de-escalate tensions in the community, it is possible that the Mzeirib situation will continue to escalate. If local intermediaries fail to calm tensions, it is distinctly possible that Government forces will drive the community to capitulate through outright force.
5. Syrian Kurdish parties move closer to rapprochement
Al-Hasakeh governorate: In recent weeks, local rumors have circulated with increasing frequency concerning the possibility of rapprochement between the Kurdish political factions of northeast Syria and their former rivals whose position within the formal opposition umbrella is increasingly uncertain. On 26 April, local and media sources reported that the U.S. special envoy to the coalition forces, William Roebuck, met representatives of various Syrian Kuridsh parties in an attempt to facilitate the rapprochement. Reportedly, the delegates discussed a Kurdish unity initiative that gained momentum in December 2019 (Syria Update 6 January 2020). Of note, outreach at that time entailed the revocation of security restrictions of Kurdish National Council’s staff and political activities, as well as the release of its political prisoners and the reopening of its offices. According to local sources, the SDF has handed previously confiscated houses of KNC members to their owners and opened political parties’ offices, but have not taken any tangible step to release their affiliated prisoners.
Kurdish unity party a real possibility
Though by no means a certainty, the bid to form a unified Kurdish front in Syria appears increasingly plausible. This would mark a dramatic turn, given the history of bitter rivalry between Syria’s primary Kurdish parties. The two most important of these blocs are the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which dominates the political landscape of northeast Syria, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which has sided with the formal opposition, thus placing it in nominal alignment with Turkey. However, the KNC has reaped few benefits from its membership in the formal opposition, and Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring has been a catalyst for revived attempts to create a Kurdish unity movement in Syria. Certainly, international actors have expended considerable political capital attempting to facilitate such a partnership, not least because it will strengthen the position of the Self Administration. Nonetheless, there are limitations to how far the KNC can likely move. The KNC’s relations with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq limit its willingness to antagonize Turkey. Therefore, if KNC-PYD rapprochement does move forward, it may have the counter-intuitive result of forcing the Self Administration to become more sensitive to Turkey.
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? Aleksandr Aksenenok, Vice President of the Russian International Affairs Council, has published a criticism lamenting the current Government of Syria’s unwillingness to undertake reforms to mitigate corruption or to deal with the root causes of the conflict.
Reading Between the Lines: Increasingly, Russia’s public statements attacking the Government of Siyra are a bellwether of Russia dissatisfaction with the Government of Syria and its fundamental modus operandi.
Source: Wilson Center
Date: 30 April 2020
What Does it Say? In the restive Idleb ceasefire zone, Turkish soldiers were involved in a violent exchange when trying to reopen the M4 highway, as they opened fire on a crowd, as they threw stones at the soldiers. Meanwhile, a mortar strike hit a Turkish outpost, causing Turkey to retaliate with a drone strike on an HTS post.
Reading Between the Lines: Death, taxes, and the fragility of ceasefires in Syria are among the only certainties in this world. To that end, among the most important issues to be resolved in northwest Syria is the relationship between Turkey and HTS. Popular discontent in the region is high, and HTS itself is casting about for a strategic direction vis-a-vis Turkey.
Date: 1 May 2020
What Does it Say? Video footage of ISIS members gamely tossing corpses into a valley surfaced after staff from a computer repair shop copied the files from a computer that belonged to an ISIS member and passed them onto media sources.
Reading Between the Lines: The videos demonstrate the organization’s grim perspective, and its path to publication calls attention to the real risks ordinary citizens take on in order to expose the group’s crimes.
Source: Human Rights Watch
Language: Arabic, English
Date: 4 May 2020
What Does it Say? Syria’s Alawi minority is often perceived as a sect of loyalists in lock-step behind the ruling Al-Assad clan. However, the reality of this dynamic is much more complex.
Reading Between the Lines: Though nearly a year old, this piece is an important illustration of the dynamics that continue within Syria’s ruling minority at a time when internal tensions run high. Many within the insular sect are dissatisfied with Bashar Al-Assad’s rule. However, the sect finds itself in a catch-22: the fall of Al-Assad and his ruling cabal would likely spell the end of the Alawis’ dominance.
Source: The New York Review of Books
Date: 22 July 2019
What Does it Say? A shipment of drugs bearing the name brand of a well-known Syrian company has been seized in Saudi Arabia, marking the second time such a drug shipment originating in Syria has been seized within the past month.
Reading Between the Lines: It is not clear whether these drug discoveries are indicators of a more vigorous drug trade from Syria, or if such shipments are simply now coming to light. Whichever is the case, Syria is a pivotal hub within the regional drug trade, and this is unlikely to change so long as Syria remains lawless, fractured, and impoverished.
Source: The Syria Report
Date: 6 May 2020
What Does it Say? The Government of Syria announced plans for reconstruction of the Yarmouk camp and several other destroyed suburbs around Damascus.
Reading Between the Lines: It is unclear if these reconstructed suburbs will be made available to inhabitatns who fled due to the conflict, particularly the Palestinian refugees who formerly inhabited the area. The Government of Syria has often used vague HLP laws to dispossess vulnerable Syrians.
Source: Middle East Institute
Date: 6 May 2020
What Does it Say? The Central Bank of Syria instituted several directives in an attempt to mitigate the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also outlined a process to return, gradually, to regular working hours.
Reading Between the Lines: This is likely the latest attempt by the Government of Syria to shore up its decimated currency, which has been spiraling downwards within alarming speed during the pandemic. A more recent attempt to beef-up foreign reserves is the recent offer of attractive interest rates for foreign currency deposits.
Source: Enab Baladi
Date: 6 May 2020
What Does it Say? The United Nations reports that many mercenaries recruited in Syria are fighting in Libya against the Turkey-backed fighters there.
Reading Between the Lines: The internationalization of the Libya conflict points to a greater geostrategic interest in the conflict on the part of Russia and Turkey. However, the recruitment of Syrians in particular casts attention on the fact that for many Syrians, few attractive livelihoods opportunities exist to compete with work as soldiers of fortune in the wider region.
Source: Al Modon
Date: 7 May 2020
What Does it Say? Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, has been accused of tax evasion. In self-defense, he has made increasingly obstreperous public attacks on Al-Assad himself.
Reading Between the Lines: The upper echelons of the Syrian ruling class are considered tight-knit and highly insular. However, internal strife is rising to a new pitch within this inner circle.
Source: Center for Global Policy
Date: 4 May 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.