6 July 2020
For the Syria response, parallels emerge as Russia exits the deconfliction system and resists the crossborder resolution
In Depth Analysis
On 25 June, Russia officially announced its withdrawal from the UN-led deconfliction system in Syria, an instrument intended to safeguard aid workers from illicit attacks. Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia stated that Russia’s withdrawal is a response to abuses of the system by “various ‘opposition groups’ and terrorists through their proxies.” In a statement, the UN registered “concern” over Russia’s decision to withdraw from the monitoring system and noted that it will study the implications for aid activities. The Russian envoy asserted that humanitarian action will not be jeopardized. Nebenzia also stressed that information concerning protected infrastructure such as hospitals and clinics should be communicated directly to the Government of Syria.
Russia’s decision to drop out of the mechanism has not generated significant attention. It should. The move is important for aid actors, but it also prompts reflection on the degree to which Russia is an indispensable actor in Syria as parallels emerge over the future of the UN crossborder aid system. As the expiration of the crossborder resolution nears, there is now a pervasive sense that Russia may dictate the future of one of the most important instruments of the international Syria response and — in some ways — the future of Syria itself.
The deconfliction system was created in 2014, and while it did produce some positive outcomes, its shortcomings were readily apparent. Among its failings were inaccurate field-based self-reporting, limited capacity to identify and correct errors, and procedural inefficiencies. However, the most critical flaw was the voluntary, opt-in nature of the system itself, which meant that it has functioned only as well as its least compliant members. Violations have occurred on all sides, yet they have been most systematic against targets on the “no-strike-list” that were located in opposition-held areas. A 2018 UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria noted that attacks on hospitals “markedly increased” following Russia’s military entry to the conflict, in fall 2015. In fact, the report found that “nowhere have attacks against civilian and protected objects been more apparent than against hospitals and medical facilities in opposition-held areas.” Media and local reports of deliberate attacks on medical facilitates have abounded throughout the course of the conflict, in particular during the latest military campaign by the Government of Syria to recapture Idleb. As of February, Physicians for Human Rights had documented 595 attacks on medical facilities in Syria. The vast majority of these were carried out by Russia and the Government of Syria.
In practical terms, Russia’s withdrawal is not the end of an era in which the deconfliction system successfully safeguarded the lives of aid workers or prevented the destruction of protected infrastructure in Syria. Rather, the move should prompt an unambiguous recognition of the reality that compliance with the existing system has been piecemeal, accountability has been virtually nonexistent, and threats to aid workers have persisted. This was the grim reality under the system at its best, and it will remain the reality going forward. Robust security protocols will remain as vital as ever to ensure the safety of implementers. Now, perhaps the most valuable insight to be drawn from the dismal record of the deconfliction system concerns the parallels that can be made with the crossborder resolution.
Like the deconfliction system, the crossborder aid modality has always been an important but imperfect pillar of the response. Unless the Security Council reaches an agreement this week, crossborder aid delivery under the UN umbrella will end. On the diplomatic level, Russia has broadcast its intention to impede the expansion of access under a modified resolution. This obstructionism recapitulates the dynamic that resulted in the order’s modification in January. A compromise made at that time ended crossborder access to northeast Syria through Yarobiyeh and forced the area into heavy reliance on Damascus-based aid. However, that painful concession was required to ensure that aid would continue to reach northwest Syria, where needs remain astronomical.
For the international community, the impending crossborder resolution vote sets up an unwelcome choice. Real leverage that can be deployed to shape the vote is limited. Humanitarian organizations warn that they are already struggling to scale-up to respond to crisis conditions aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not clear that crossborder NGOs will be able to seamlessly bridge gaps that will result from the stoppage of UN crossborder activities. However, it is important to note that even under its most expansive configuration, UN-delivered crossborder aid did not meet all needs. Like the deconfliction system, it was merely a starting point, not a comprehensive solution. This will remain true for the crossborder resolution irrespective of the outcome in New York this week. Whatever happens, the Syria response will have to adapt to this reality by finding new ways to reach persons in need. As Syria’s economy collapses, this will be more important than ever (see: Cash crash: Syria’s economic collapse and the fragmentation of the state).
Whole of Syria Review
1. Government takes rare steps to ease tensions in southern Syria
Dar’a and Sweida Governorates: On 29 June, local media sources reported that the Government of Syria had canceled the seizure of assets for several former leaders in the Free Syria Army, as well as former activists and opposition figures from southern Syria. The most notable of those individuals is Ahmed Al-Oudeh, now a prominent but polarizing figure with the 5th Corps in eastern Dar’a (see: Syria Update 29 June). The move comes shortly after other attempts by the Government to defuse tensions. Local media sources report that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad pardoned 49 detainees from Dar’a, while the Government has also suspended its search for 3,734 wanted individuals. Meanwhile, in neighboring Sweida governorate, three detainees were also released by Government of Syria forces, after their arrest for participating in anti-Government protests. Local sources also note that the Government of Syria has allowed doctors, teachers, engineers, and other state employees to return to their jobs at state institutions after many were dismissed over the latest protests in Sweida (see: Syria Update 15 June).
Clearly, many of the measures taken by the Government of Syria are an attempt to reduce the fraught tensions that persist in southern Syria. In isolation, any of the conciliatory measures would be notable. When taken together, they represent a sweeping initiative to turn down the heat in Syria’s most volatile region. However, gaps remain. Local sources indicate that the detainees released in Dar’a were not the same prisoners at the center of the protesters’ demands. The conditions in Sweida make the Government’s ambitions even more clear. The detainees have been released on the condition that they dial down anti-Government demonstrations in the region. The Government’s strategy with Al-Oudeh likely has the same goal, but its precise angle of approach is not clear. While there is certainly a sense that the Government is seeking to curry favor with Al-Oudeh, it is not immediately clear whether this is merely a pragmatic recognition that Al-Oudeh cannot be co-opted, and should, therefore, be placated, or if it is an attempt to build bridges to draw him closer to Damascus. All told, the measures are likely to bring some respite to the area, but tensions are likely to rise if more substantive demands continue to go unmet.
2. Damascus Governorate Council announces a new Yarmuk Camp master plan
Damascus: On 25 June, the Damascus Governorate Council revealed the final draft of the proposed master plan for Yarmuk Camp and Qaboun neighborhood in Damascus city. The plan divides the camp into three areas, according to the degree of physical destruction. The first phase of the implementation will target only the most highly damaged zone, which accounts for 42 percent of the camp’s total area. Furthermore, the proposed master plan entails profound alterations for the pre-war housing, land, and property (HLP) status, including widening main streets and introducing high-rise buildings, public spaces, and parks. Such alterations have been widely criticized by families displaced from Yarmuk and by the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, which claims that the plan will prevent the return of a large portion of displaced residents and change the “demographic character of the camp and blur its identity.” Of note, compensation will be paid out only for residents who have official ownership documents, which risks excluding a significant portion of the camp’s population who were informal residents. Moreover, compensation will only cover the value of the property itself, granted as shares of the newly built real estate.
Yarmuk is a potential test case for the reconstruction paradigms that will play out across Syria. As a result, precedents set in Yarmuk concerning compensation, access, and procedure may be repeated in a multitude of communities where destruction invites organized state-led reconstruction planning. Indicators from Yamuk are far from encouraging. Despite a presidential decree issued in November 2018 allowing IDPs to return to Yarmuk, only a small fraction has been able to do so since its capture by Government forces in May 2018. Displaced residents have been systematically barred from return primarily by strict security protocols and the inability to acquire the visitation permits required to inspect properties. However, high levels of destruction and increased looting by pro-Government security forces and militias are also a factor.
For former residents of Yarmuk, the ultimate implications of these restrictions may be severe indeed. Concerns persist over the new development’s capacity to match the housing capacity of the original camp. However, that question may be moot, as the project is, in itself, likely to be a form of de facto demographic change. Even under the best of outcomes, it is unlikely that former Yarmuk residents will be able to return to the area once it is redeveloped. It is worth noting that the land on which the camp was built is owned by the General Commission for Palestinian Refugees, while individuals own only the vertical structures that are built over the lots. Even among those owners who can establish a claim, compensation in the form of shares in the new development will be calculated according to the value of the property prior to “regularization” — and it is dubious whether such compensation will provide adequate equity for former residents to buy back into the new project.
3. Under pressure, Salvation Government continues to insist it controls the northwest
Idleb Governorate: On 1 July, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) issued press cards to journalists under the pretext of seeking to “organize journalistic works.” According to the Salvation Government’s public relations chief, Mulham Ahmad, soon only card-holders will be permitted to report in Salvation Government-controlled areas, although all journalists will purportedly be able to obtain a card. The card debacle follows a string of incidents in which HTS or the Salvation Government has ramped-up arcane regulation in recent weeks. In addition to recent actions to break up union formation and organize the transportation sector, on 30 June, the Salvation Government Ministry of Development and Humanitarian Affairs announced new requirements for registering volunteers. On 28 June, the Public Monetary Authority also issued a decision requiring currency exchange shops in Idleb to obtain a permit to practice, at the cost of approximately $1,250. This followed a related decision from 20 June, which banned all money transfer offices from paying transfer recipients in any currency other than the transfer’s original currency.
Beset on all sides, HTS is scrambling to hold onto power
The Salvation Government and its progenitors have a long record of indirect taxation and service denial through over-regulation. However, the latest regulatory blitz in northwest Syria appears designed to squelch internal resistance by asserting its monopoly on power. Regional discord is especially pertinent now, as HTS faces a potentially existential threat from the Fa Athbotou groups (see: Syria Update 29 June). Importantly, the sectoral breadth of the decisions, each seemingly prompted by a different narrow regulatory interest, suggests the ultimate aim is for the Salvation Government to assert its control in the face of adversity. Ironically, the need to mount such a show of force is itself an indicator that HTS and the Salvation Government may be in actual jeopardy. Recent defections from HTS, the growing Turkish military presence in Idleb, and Turkish-Russian joint patrols are all indicators of this. HTS has seemingly prioritized asserting its grip on additional economic resources and governance sectors, while it has taken parallel measures to ban the creation of any military or governance structures outside its auspices, often coercively. Constraining press access and controlling the money supply are, in themselves, potentially effective tools to manage dissent — but this is not likely to be an effective strategy over the long term. Over time, resentment may breed resistance.
4. Sugar and rice prices jump as subsidies falter
Damascus: On 1 July, local media sources reported that the Government of Syria had reduced the subsidies on sugar and rice by more than 100 percent. As a result, the price of a package of sugar sold through the smart card rose from 350 to 800 SYP while the price of rice rose from 400 to 900 SYP. In response to the reduced subsidies, the Government of Syria has stated that it intends to raise salaries and to provide cash handouts to families in need. The Ministry of Economy’s proposed strategy aims to redistribute support to needy groups without forgoing government budget for the benefit of other consumers. According to media and local sources, the decrease in subsidies and the rise in prices was a result of the adjustment made to the exchange rate for incoming cash transfers, which was bumped to 1,250 SYP on imports, a 285 percent increase. Of note, although the subsidized prices have been raised and are likely to impose hardship on many Syrians, they still lag behind the open market, where the price of sugar is 1,400 SYP, and rice is between 1,300-2,000 SYP.
Cash catastrophe unfolds
The economic situation in Syria is only going to get worse. The COVID-19 pandemic, increasing international isolation, and the economic implosion of Lebanon all add to the headwinds facing the Syrian economy. Prices have increased at an exponential rate, and although there are calls for increased salaries to bridge the gap, this has yet to happen. According to local sources, the average minimum wage in Syria is currently around 46,000 SYP, and approximately 60,000 SYP in Damascus. However, media sources report that for a salary in Syria to have purchasing power equivalent to that of the pre-conflict era, a Syrian would need to earn 310,000 SYP per month. Given that the state itself is the largest employer in Syria, keeping salary levels at parity with 2010 levels would force the Government of Syria to pay out 500 billion SYP in salaries monthly. Such a drastic increase is unthinkable in the current climate. The reality is that the conflict has reduced most Syrians to poverty, and conditions will continue to make them poorer. As overall economic activity shrinks and businesses close due to overall contraction, employment of all kinds will likely diminish. As this occurs, the thinning of the Syrian business class will have adverse knock-on effects for the entire Syrian economy.
5. Two new oil refineries get the green light
Ar-Raqqa and Tartous: On 28 June, local media sources reported that the Government of Syria had greenlit the establishment of two new oil refineries to be built by Al-Sahel Refinery company and Al-Rusafa Refinery company. According to media sources, the Al-Rusafa Refinery company is based in Ar-Raqqa and is owned by Hussam Qaterji company. Al-Sahel Refinery is reportedly jointly owned by an unnamed Lebanese businessman and Qaterji and is based in Tartous. Both companies have reportedly demonstrated capital of 10 billion SYP (approx. $3,846,000).
Ink on paper
Syria has a dire need for rehabilitation of its oil infrastructure, and new construction to ramp up production and refining capacity would be a long-awaited boon to the sector and to the Government of Syria itself. This announcement is unlikely to herald such a development. Local sources note that numerous announcements of similar construction agreements have been canceled during the latter stages of the conflict, and none stands out as having materialized to significant effect. Given the high bar for projects to reach implementation, the involvement of Al-Qaterji is curious. As Qaterji’s infamy has grown as a war economy actor of the first order, so too has international scrutiny over his involvement in the crossline oil trade and other illicit activities. The inner circle of the Syrian war economy has been likened to a shell game in which new actors are elevated as others become untouchable due to newly applied sanctions or political risk. That Qaterji continues to win critical state contracts is an indicator that his place in the regime’s business network is, for now, firm.
6. Turkish activities continue in the northeast
Ein Issa: On 3 July, local sources reported that Russian and Government of Syria military forces withdrew from positions near Ein Issa. The move corresponds with a reported repositioning of Turkish military equipment in Idleb governorate, and it follows a tripartite meeting of the Astana powers, Russia, Turkey, and Iran. The move is only the latest in a series of events that illustrates the tensions that remain in northeast Syria. On 1 July, media sources reported that Turkey had once again cut off the water supply in Self Administration-held areas. Moreover, on 23 June, the Self Administration stated that Turkish shelling in Ain al-Arab (Kobani) had killed three women and injured several other individuals. In response, civilians staged a sit-in in front of the Russian base in Ain al-Arab to protest the lack of a Russian response to the Turkish shelling, which has continued in a piecemeal fasion in recent weeks.
A troublespot for Turkish aggression
Northeast Syria continues to be a hotbed of tensions. Access to water — now predominantly controlled by Turkey — has been a frequent flashpoint issue which takes on added significance under current conditions. With the onset of summer, water is already scarce, thus compounding the risk of the spread of COVID-19. However, the most notable aspect of the recent events is the involvement of Russia. Despite Russian efforts to broker service agreements and quell violence on the frontlines that separate the SDF and Turkey-backed forces, violence persists. Left unchanged, this reality is likely to blunt Russia’s effectiveness as an interlocutor with the SDF more generally. This is especially true if the SDF’s nightmare scenario is realized and Turkey makes a power play to capture further territory in eastern Syria. The most notable target remains Ain al-Arab, the ”‘missing link” needed to connect areas under Turkish control on either side of the Euphrates River. Certainly, it is too early to foresee how or whether Turkey will undertake such an operation. However, the latest events are signals that Turkey’s ambition to do so persists, while Russia may be willing to countenance further Turkish actions if acquiescence brings it closer to achieving its own objectives elsewhere in Syria.
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? International donors pledged a total of $7.7 billion in support to Syria and neighboring countries; the pledges include $5.5 billion for 2020 and $2.2 billion for 2021.
Reading Between the Lines: A key challenge ahead is how the international community can leverage continued programming to improve outcomes as the limitations of emergency response modalities become apparent.
Source: Relief Web
Language: English and Arabic
Date: 30 June 2020
What Does It Say? Turkey and Russia conducted a joint military patrol on the M4 highway between Lattakia and Aleppo, following a number of ceasefire violations by the Government of Syria.
Reading Between the Lines: While the fragile ceasefire agreement has endured over the past few months, its sustainability largely depends on the Government of Syria’s willingness to comply with its terms. Previously, however, such pledges have often been broken when the Government of Syria found cause to do so.
Source: Enab Baladi
Date: 01 July 2020
What Does It Say? The High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy in the EU reassures that reconstruction efforts remain dependent on Syria’s political transitions as per the conditions of Security Council Resolution 2254.
Reading Between the Lines: Assistance for reconstruction is unlikely to materialize in the foreseeable future. Western actors are unwilling to alter their stance, and the Syrian regime has made clear that it will sacrifice the future of Syria before it relinquishes its power.
Source: Asharq Al-Awsat
Date: 30 June 2020
What Does It Say? The Government of Syria has previously used tribal leaders as important information and power brokers in their respective communities. As elsewhere in Syria, traditional tribal leadership was put on the backfoot as a rearguard of military commanders, including many with tribal ties, rose to prominence in opposition to Damascus.
Reading Between the Lines: The report calls attention to the continuing importance of tribal structures in southern Syria. While tribal dynamics have been a persistent focus of actors engaging northeast Syria, less attention has been paid to conditions in the south.
Source: Chatham House
Date: June 2020
What Does It Say? Contrary to the common idea that ISIS expropriated homes and turned them over to its members as spoils of war, rental documentations indicate that ISIS acquired a large share of its income through rents collected internally.
Reading Between the Lines: The research is an important contribution to the overall understanding of the way the ISIS polity functioned. Pervasive misperceptions of the financial basis for the ISIS administration persist, and they impede attempts to account for the depredations committed during the period of ISIS rule.
Source: The George Washington University
Date: June 2020
What Does It Say? Russia has recently begun to tout its importance as a sponsor of humanitarian activity in Syria, rather than an exclusively military power.
Reading Between the Lines: Russia has good reason to cultivate a more positive image in Syria. As Russia seeks to build inroads across the country, it will be vital — and challenging — for Russia to dispel the view that is solely a conquering power.
Source: Atlantic Council Crisis Group
Date: 25 June 2020
What Does It Say? The article catalogues the difficulties that NGOs and INGOs face due to the introduction of sanctions.
Reading Between the Lines: While humanitarian operations in Syria are nominally exempt from the Caesar sanctions, formidable hurdles to aid activities persist — most notably, due to reflexive de-risking by financial institutions that fear inadvertent violations.
Date: June 2020
What Does It Say? Russia and the Government of Syria have reportedly formed a new military unit – Brigade 16 – under Division 25. The unit will be under the commander of Suheil Al-Hassan, nom de guerre “the tiger.”
Reading Between the Lines: Al-Hassan has kept a relatively low profile in recent years. Nonetheless, Al-Hassan has frequently been floated as a potential power player in a post-conflict Syrian state, not least because of his spartan reputation and considerable military prowess, which has ingratiated him with the Syrian defense establishment.
Source: Zaman al-Wsl
Date: 28 June 2020
What Does It Say? The report lays out how the fight to root out corruption was used as a ruse to create a far-reaching spy network that tapped internet and telephone lines.
Reading Between the Lines: It is well-known that the Syrian state apparatus has at its disposal myriad levers of coercion and spycraft, dating to the early days of the Baath regime itself. What is most notable about this incident is that it confirms suspicions about the actual outcomes of anti-corruption campaigns that the Government has publicized in recent months.
Date: 29 June 2020
What Does It Say? The economic situation in Eastern Ghouta is becoming extremely bleak, with average monthly income at around 45,000 SYP, equivalent to $18 at current exchange rates.
Reading Between the Lines: This bleak situation is reminiscent of the time Ghouta was besieged by the Government of Syria, denying residents access to basic commodities and driving up prices. Now with the onset of the Caesar sanctions with the current economic situation, the prices of basic commodities are once again spiraling out of reach for most residents.
Source: Syria Direct
Date: 1 July 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.