Syria Update

1 June 2020
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M4 opens as Russia flexes muscles in NES

In Depth Analysis

On 25 May, local media sources reported that a section of the M4 highway between Ain Issa and Tel Tamr had opened to commercial traffic for the first time since October, when control of the road fragmented as a result of the Turkish military incursion, Operation Peace Spring. Now, under the terms of an agreement between Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Government of Syria, Russia will reportedly act as a guarantor over the newly reopened sections of the road, which is the most important east-west commercial thoroughfare in northern Syria. Reportedly, four civilian convoys will run from Ain Issa to Tel Tamr on a daily basis. Local sources indicate that five observation points will be established between Ain Issa and Tel Tamr, and will operate under the joint supervision of the SDF and the Government of Syria. In addition to seeking to guarantee the safety of the civilians transiting along the road, the agreement also states that no roadblocks or checkpoints are to be established along the affected section of the M4. The reopening of the M4 is important in two fundamental ways: as a commercial boost to integrated trade dynamics, and as the most important concrete outcome of cooperation between the Government of Syria and the Self Administration to date.

Hitting the open road

In a pragmatic sense, the resumption of commercial traffic on the road may signal an important step toward normalizing commercial conditions in eastern Syria following the severe disruption caused by the Turkish military incursion. The M4 is the most important commercial

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artery connecting the region with the Syrian coast. However, the road is also critically important to personal mobility, commercial trade, and humanitarian access within the relatively insular eastern Syria region itself. In the face of the M4’s closure, overland transportation in the region has been forced onto inefficient, ill-maintained dirt roads, thus adding time, delays, and risks to regional transit. However, additional barriers to cross-line commercial trade such as tariffs and crossing fees may persist, and the long-term functionality of the road will be subject to the political fallout of holistic relations between territorial actors.

Bashar is back in town?

More important than transportation alone is the political detente that underwrites the agreement. Opening the M4 is arguably the most concrete outcome of negotiations between the Government of Syria and the SDF to date. Throughout the conflict, the relationship between the actors has been characterized by strategic ambiguity, and both sides have prioritized proximate interests of more immediate importance. That changed following the Turkish incursion in October. The perceived ‘betrayal’ of the SDF by the U.S.-led international coalition forced a shotgun marriage between the SDF and the Government of Syria, resulting in a vague military pact created to ward off further land grabs by armed groups backed by Turkey (see: Syria Update 16-22 October 2019). However, the thaw in relations was put on ice after the U.S. seemingly reversed course and doubled-down on its presence in northeast Syria (see: Syria Update 6-12 November 2019). However, Russia has not been sitting idly by. Indeed, Russia’s persistent efforts to carve out influence in northeast Syria are seemingly bearing fruit. In particular, Russia has brokered service agreements involving electricity and water, and has reportedly stepped up its efforts to foster a commercial reintegration between Government of Syria areas and those held by the Self Administration. To that end, Russia reportedly used its influence to allay Turkish concerns over the new M4 deal. Relatedly, on 30 May, the Aleppo-Ar-Raqqa road was reportedly re-opened for the first time in more than eight years, also under Russia’s influence.

On all sides, there are reasons to celebrate the deals. For the SDF and the Self Administration, the agreement is likely to improve mobility and may trigger a modest economic rebound, which is particularly timely due to the dismal economic conditions that pervade Syria. For the Government of Syria, agreements to normalize traffic with eastern Syria constitute a subtle — but unambiguous — reassertion of territorial ambition. Looking ahead, however, Russia may be the biggest winner of the deal, yet Russian enforcement power is limited by the modest physical presence of Rusisan forces in eastern Syria. As in other instances, the fate of the transit deal will likely be shaped by the compliance or violations of local actors. Of note, armed groups backed by Turkey are now positioned mere kilometers from the M4. These groups will give Turkey persistent leverage over the arrangement. If the past is prologue, the deal’s sustained implementation is liable to become wrapped up in broader strategic questions that exist well beyond the M4 itself.

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol.3_No.21_WebMap

1. Dar’a accord reduces tensions

Al-Ajami, Dar’a governorate: On 28 May, local media sources reported that various reconciled armed factions and the central committee reached a new agreement with Government of Syria forces following a meeting in Al-Ajami, thus reducing tensions in restive areas of western Dar’a. This accord followed a series of escalations that threatened to burst into outright violence, the most notable of which was the extensive deployment of elite Government of Syria military forces to the region. Local sources indicated that new checkpoints will reportedly be established as a result of the accord, while 5th Corps fighters have already entered the area and established a curfew, in addition to conducting searches of houses and offices, allegedly for individuals they accuse of supporting ISIS. Of note, following the signing of the agreement, one of the opposition leaders who had participated, Abu Mushred Al-Baradan, was targeted in a failed assassination attempt in Mzeirib.

The Dar’a reconciled are down, but not out 

The agreement is a critically important step that takes fuel off the fire in western Dar’a. The potential for violent escalation has mounted in the region, following a month in which tensions between central authorities and reconciled communities compounded the baseline instability that pervades much of southern Syria (see: Syria Update 26 May). Now, implementing the agreement is will be another important test. The Government of Syria has arrived in a show of force in the area, yet as of this writing, that physical presence has not translated into the full implementation of the measures stipulated in the accord, including checkpoints, which remain a matter for future negotiation between the central committee and the 5th Corps. All parties involved have a stake in reducing pressures, yet past experience in the area has shown that notional interests do not necessarily translate into action. In that respect, the assassination attempt against Al-Baradan is a reminder that underlying tensions are likely to continue to split the opposition, and some who spent years opposing the Government of Syria by force of arms are not necessarily willing to stand idly by as perceived collaborators advance the interests of central authorities.

2. Lawyers gagged under new social media order

Damascus: On May 21, the Syndicate of Lawyers in Syria announced new guidelines restricting the speech of Syrian lawyers on social media. According to the syndicate’s announcement, the gag order is intended to monitor, punish, and prevent activities that would be “offensive to the legal profession and to colleagues” as well as content deemed “inappropriate to the judicial institution.” The announcement noted that lawyers maintain the right to “share [their] thoughts and remarks in a manner commensurate to the status of the profession.” However, public reactions to the syndicate’s Facebook posting of the decision criticized the purposefully vague terminology used in the announcement and warned that it would significantly constrain the wider social role played by lawyers.

Order in the court

The social media gag order represents a further effort to immure the Syrian state against popular criticism. Of note, the order follows several months in which public criticism of rising prices, growing hunger, and deteriorating economic conditions have led Syrians to take aim at the organs of state in night-unprecedented fashion. This order is particularly notable because lawyers have served as important vectors of local, grassroots empowerment. For instance, in January, a lawyer named Mohammad Al-Issa was arrested for pointing out the “catastrophic” conditions endured by prisoners in ‘Arda Central Prison and was charged with “defaming a symbol of authority.” The lawyer’s comment was part of a broader wave of criticism by prisoners’ families on social media against arbitrary arrests and poor conditions in state prisons. All told, the new measure should be seen as part and parcel of the state’s continued attempts to limit the broad spectrum of criticism surfacing on social media and in the Syrian street. Under the new restrictions, one of the avenues of vocal criticism of the Syrian state may narrow.

3. As the lira falters, new FOREX rules enter force

Damascus: On 21 May, several foreign exchange companies in Syria announced that they would begin selling dollars at significantly adjusted rates ranging between 1,260 SYP/USD and 1,450 SYP/USD. This revised rate is approximately double the so-called preferential rate set by the Central Bank of Syria, 700 SYP/USD, yet it still lags far behind the parallel market value, which currently hovers around 1,800 SYP/USD. This announcement followed two days after the Central Bank of Syria made its own ambiguous announcement that it would take new measures to regain control over the rapidly declining exchange rate. Relatedly, on 31 May, a member of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce reportedly stated that traders in the capital have decided to refrain from selling goods due to instability in foreign exchange markets.

Syria’s cash crash continues

The topsy-turvy economic conditions that now pervade Syria are amenable to few practical remedies (see: Syria Update 26 May). Although the Government of Syria’s latest announcement of currency supports was ambiguous, one possible course of action is currency auctions — i.e. selling dollar reserves. In the past, the Central Bank of Syria has used this approach to prop up the declining Syrian pound. In effect, increasing the supply of dollars in the domestic market is intended to restore stability to the exchange rate and prevent the rising inflation that has racked consumer markets and driven popular discontent with inept and impotent central authorities. However, doing so comes at a cost. Foreign reserves are believed to be anemic already. Additionally, any impact such a sale would have on markets will be temporary and limited in scale, even if the Government is able to increase capital inflows by encouraging more remittance at the revised, more attractive exchange rate. These are not merely questions of number-crunching at the Central Bank. Syria is now in the awkward position in which multiple exchange rates are in operation simultaneously. The decision by traders to refrain from selling commercial goods is a reflection of the consequences such uncertainty will have on the ground. Meanwhile, despite desperate attempts to stabilize the exchange rate, purchasing power inside Syria is likely to continue to deteriorate as market prices jump higher and salaries fall further out of step with inflation (see: Syria after COVID-19: No relief for an ailing economy).

4. Tribal clash prompts anger at SDF leadership

Mashekh, Deir-ez-Zor governorate: On 24 May, local media sources reported that a violent clash took place in rural Deir-ez-Zor governorate between members of the Al-Bakir tribe and the Albufrio tribe, resulting in the death of 10 civilians. Residents of Mashekh have appealed to tribal leaders in the region to intervene and put a stop to the bloodshed. According to local sources, the trigger of the clashes is likely a long-standing feud between the Albufrio and Al-Bakir tribes, which has frequently resulted in violent acts of retribution. According to local sources, the recent attacks may have been fueled by instances of disproportionate retaliation on the part of Al-Bakir tribesmen, although this is difficult to establish in the present case.

Clash of clans

Tribal feuds frequently serve as drivers of local instability and conflict in Syria, and for that reason, it is important to assess such events cautiously. However, the present case does have a deeper significance in terms of the overall conflict and the operational environment of eastern Syria. Local sources indicate that a prominent sheikh within the Al-Bakir tribe occupies a seat within the SDF military council. The sheikh has been accused of wielding his political influence to protect members of his tribe who stand accused of excessive retaliation. Additionally, the sheikh has reportedly channeled light and medium weapons to members of the tribe. Of note, the recent clash is not the first such incident, which has compounded scrutiny of the sheikh and has brought negative attention to the SDF itself. As a result, rumors have circulated that the sheikh may be dismissed from the military council. Tribal dynamics in Syria are complex and frequently misunderstood (see: Tribal Tribulations: Tribal Mapping and State Actor Influence in Northeastern Syria). However, tribal identity serves as an important — if not the fundamental — social identifier in eastern Syria. As a result, such events may cast a long shadow over the local operational context.

5. Amid doubts, Putin appoints new special envoy for Syria

Damascus: On 27 May, media sources reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Aleksander Efimov — Moscow’s current ambassador in Damascus and a direct affiliate of the Kremlin — to fill the position of Russia’s new Special Envoy for Developing Relations with Syria. The position is newly created, and it pads out a roster that already includes two envoys that Russia has already posted in Damascus, the Kremlin’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, and its special presidential envoy on the Middle East, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. Of note, Efimov will retain his position as the Russian ambassador, which he has held since 2018. Of note, Efimov previously spent five years as Russia’s ambassador to the UAE.

Keeping the Kremlin happy 

Naturally, the appointment has widely been seen in light of its provocative timing, for the measure follows nigh-unprecedented public displays of Russia’s exasperation with the intransigence of Damascus (see: Syria Update 11 May). However, the enthusiasm with which  — predominantly Western — analysts have promoted that narrative is likely a reflection of wishful thinking for a breach between Damascus and Moscow, rather than actual fact. In the present case, there is some evidence suggesting that the reshuffling reflects Russian efforts to preserve a delicate balance of power in Moscow. To that end, it has been suggested that Efimov’s selection may reflect Russia’s prioritization of making progress where his predecessor — Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu — has failed: winning economic concessions for Russia in repayment of its wartime commitment to Syria. The task of rebuilding Syria has steadily risen among Kremlin priorities. As such, Efimov’s deep ties to the UAE, a potential partner of growing importance to Russia and Syria, may be critical, particularly given the UAE’s expressed willingness to take part in rebuilding Syria’s war-ravaged economy. It is unlikely that the move will signal a tidal shift in Russia’s approach to Syria. That said, as the conflict has dragged on, Russia has shown the long-term efficacy of small changes of course pursued over time.

6. Reports: U.S. and Russia conduct joint patrol

Rmelan, Al-Hasakah governorate: On 27 May, local media sources reported that U.S. and Russian forces conducted a joint military patrol in the vicinity of Rmelan, in northeastern Al-Hasakah governorate. Reportedly, the joint patrol included more than 10 armored vehicles from both sides and was documented through video recordings published on the same day. However, conflicting media reports have surfaced, and a spokesperson for the U.S. military operations against ISIS reportedly clarified that the action was not a formally conducted joint patrol, but a limited maneuver intended to ensure independent patrols do not overlap.

A history of violence

Russia and the U.S. are at loggerheads in northeast Syria. The tensions between the two sides have persisted since October, when Russian forces expanded their footprint, following the deal between the SDF and the Government of Syria. However, tensions have flared at points throughout the conflict, and run-ins between U.S. and Russian forces have been somewhat routine in northeast Syria. Politically, Washington has signalled the possibility of a softening position on Russia in Syria. Most notably, on 2 May U.S. Special Representative James Jeffrey stated that Russian forces would not be required to vacate Syrian territory to wind down the conflict, in contrast with other foreign forces now in the country. However, the statement is likely a recognition of a pragmatic reality, rather than an overture to greater cooperation with Moscow. Indeed, in nearly every other respect, the forces have been in conflict, including over reports of Russian military recruitment to compete with the U.S.-backed SDF. As such, the reported military patrol should be viewed as an example of more general deconfliction efforts between the powers, rather than a signifier of a step-change in the bilateral relationship.

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.

On the edge of starvation: New alarming Consumer Price Index estimates for Syria

What Does it Say? The Consumer Price Index in Syria continues to rise at an alarming rate, pushing more and more people into food insecurity due to their lack of access to food.

Reading Between the Lines: While many factors have caused the Consumer Price Index to rise, the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigations by the Government of Syria and neighboring countries have exacerbated dismal economic conditions.

Source: London School of Economics

Language: English

Date: 26 May 2020

Libya: How Europe failed to end the war

What Does it Say? In the face of the internal polarization and the lack of cohesive engagement that have prevented Europe from winding down the conflict in Libya, the author proposes an EU peacekeeping force be deployed to steer the conflict to an end. 

Reading Between the Lines: The Libya conflict has become increasingly internationalized, and it has taken on many of the characteristics of Syria: deep internal divisions, regional interventions, and the stall-out of opposition groups.

Source: Middle East Eye

Language: English

Date: 26 May 2020

Huge fires devour hundreds of thousands of trees from Palmyra dates (photos)

What Does it Say? Fires spread across the Al-Basatin oasis in Palmyra on Tuesday night until and took till Wednesday morning to be extinguished.

Reading Between the Lines: As with fires that have broken out across agricultural areas of Syria, the incident is the subject of rumors that conflict actors are setting blazes to deny their use and to sow frustration.

Source: Orient Net

Language: Arabic

Date: 27 May 2020

What Is Behind the Leadership Tensions Inside Syria?

What Does it Say? Visible signs of internal strife are surfacing within the ruling class in Syria, focusing on Rami Makhlouf, heretofore one of the main financiers of pro-Government militias.

Reading Between the Lines: Theories to explain the rift abound. From finances, to family, to feuding that has erupted as internal networks are restructured, myriad factors are likely at play.

Source: Carnegie

Language: English

Date: 14 May 2020

$530 billion and the destruction of 40% of the infrastructure … Syria’s losses in 9 years

What Does it Say? According to new estimates, the economic losses that Syria has sustained throughout the conflict amount to approximately $530 billion. Meanwhile, it is now projected that 86 percent of the Syrian population lives under the poverty line.  

Reading Between the Lines: Syria is in dire need of cash from abroad. However, Russia and Iran are unable to meet this need, leaving the ruling regime in a catch-22: reform and open the doors to foreign assistance, or continue to rule a ruined state. As it now stands, state collapse is far more likely than regime collapse.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

Language: English

Date: 27 May 2020

SACD Analysis: Impact of Covid-19 on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

What Does it Say? Syrian refugees in Lebanon face greater restrictions and more discrimination after the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reading Between the Lines:. Tensions are already high, and will likely continue to rise, given Lebanon’s own economic fragility. As Lebanon negotiates its tenuous exit from full-on lockdown conditions, the risk remains that a surge in COVID-19 cases will become a focus of host community anger.

Source: Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity

Language: English

Date: 25 May 2020

The official Syrian “SANA” news agency reported on Monday evening that one soldier was killed, one wounded and a military vehicle destroyed, due to an Israeli bombing on Tal Shaar in Quneitra countryside

What Does it Say? On 27 May, Israel reportedly launched an airstrike on a Syrian anti-aircraft missile launcher in Quneitra.

Reading Between the Lines: The repeated airstrikes by Israel on targets in Syria has once again become routine, following a severe lull. These attacks show no sign of abating.

Source: RT Online

Language: Arabic

Date: 27 May 2020

Syria’s Assad is confronting the toughest challenges of the 9-year war

What Does it Say? Syria is in a critical position with internal strife racking the ruling regime, rising tensions with Russia, and increasing rates of poverty and food insecurity.

Reading Between the Lines: Syria is in desperate need of cash and credit to keep the lights on. However, Russia and Iran are in no position to answer this request. However, Assad remains seemingly unwilling to countenance the reforms that would be needed to open the door for Western funding.

Source: The Washington Post

Language: English

Date: 26 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.