Syria Update

20 July 2020
Syria Update 20 July 2020
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VBIED attack on Russian-Turkish patrol triggers tit-for-tat retaliation

In Depth Analysis

On 14 July, a VBIED targeted a joint Russian-Turkish patrol on the M4 near Ariha, in the western Idleb countryside. Three Russian soldiers were wounded, as was an unspecified number of Turkish fighters. Russian warplanes retaliated by bombing various towns and villages in the Idleb and Lattakia countrysides, while Government of Syria artillery shelled villages in the Jabal Al-Zawiya region. One civilian was reported killed in Ariha, and as many as 6,000 civilians reportedly fled the Jabal al-Zawiya area. On 15 July, Russia escalated by bombing the Turkish-controlled city of Al-Bab, killing one civilian and wounding as many as 12, mostly women and children. In response, Turkey shelled Government forces in Saraqib and in the Aleppo countryside, where they also targeted Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). At the time of writing, Turkish officials have not commented on the bombing of Al-Bab. For its part, the Russian military has blamed the VBIED attack on “Idleb’s militants” as a whole. Meanwhile, a little-known and recently self-declared group of nominal Chechen background, Khattab al-Shishani Brigades, claimed responsibility for the incident.

Two dimensions of the VBIED and the tit-for-tat response stand out as noteworthy: first, the status of intergroup tensions in northwest Syria and second, the implications for the Russian-Turkish accomodation in northern Syria border areas.

Syria Update 20 July 2020
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False flag?

The claim of responsibility by a supposedly Chechen group is dubious, as is the group’s very existence. The first and perhaps most likely possibility is that the bombing was carried out by Hurras Al-Din and its allies, including hardline factions within Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). The attack may be a demonstration on the part of Hurras Al-Din that it continues to wield influence. This is a strategic imperative for the group following recent clashes with HTS, which further strained the embattled group’s cohesiveness. Of note, recent clashes have come in part in response to the group’s acquiescence toward the joint Russian-Turkish patrols. To that end, one source close to HTS has blamed the attack on the Russian-Turkish patrol on Hurras Al-Din. Nonetheless, the remote possibility remains that third-tier hardline groups, or ISIS cells, may bear responsibility for the attack.

Deep impact

Perhaps most important for the international aid community is the potential that the attack will trigger reprisals on a wider scale. On its face, the Russian bombing is a rebuke of Turkey’s failure to rein in hardline groups in Idleb. However, the widening scope of regional power politics should also be borne in mind. Some have speculated that Russia is also eager to send Turkey a warning signal over other foreign policy files where relations between the two nations are fraught. The VBIED attack coincides with clashes between Turkish-allied Azerbaijan and Russian-backed Armenia. Likewise, in Libya, the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord is threatening to reverse the Russian-backed successes of forces led by Khalifa Haftar, by launching an offensive on the strategic city of Sirte.

Whatever the dimensions of regional power politics, it is clear that northwest Syria will remain a contested space. Analysts debate how long Turkey and Russia will remain satisfied with the current accomodation in Idleb and its analog in northeast Syria. In both areas, the machinations of Turkey and Russia are the most significant driving forces behind major military operations. Nominally, the overall disposition of northwest Syria remains a matter of utmost significance to the Government of Syria, yet it is not clear that Damascus will seek to recapture the northern portions of Idleb militarily, given Turkish backing for the armed opposition and Russia’s uncertain aims. On a more limited scale, Jabal Al-Zawiya remains particularly vulnerable to attacks, and it is likely to be a focal point of future offensives. Finally, perhaps the most pertinent impact is the fact that the attack on the joint Russian-Turkish patrol increases the pressure on Turkey to rein in HTS and other extremist factions. This has been the perennial issue in northwest Syria, and Turkey has responded to this pressure not by implementing a durable solution, but by kicking the can down the road.

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 28_WebMap

1. Dar’a Central Committee to expand

Dar’a Governorate: On 14 July, local sources reported that representatives from across western, eastern, and northern rural areas of Dar’a governorate are conducting multilateral meetings to establish a consultative body to represent the entire governorate in external negotiations. Although details are scarce, it is believed that such a committee would expand the effective role of the Central Committee, whose remit is the betterment of security, social, and political affairs in Dar’a city. Through Russia’s mediation, the committee has brokered access to high-level Government of Syria officials, including Ali Mamlouk, the head of the National Security Bureau. According to unconfirmed local reports, the enlarged committee will consist of nine members from each area, with three representatives from each chosen for the advisory council. Reportedly, three advisory council members will be nominated for the executive committee to conduct higher-level negotiations for all Dar’a.

From chaos to collaboration

The Central Committee has achieved notable success in bringing some stability to the areas of southern Syria where it wields influence. As a locally legitimate entity composed of tribal elders, local notables, and former military and civilian opposition figures, the committee has interceded in matters ranging from theft and petty crime to heady concerns over service provision, conscription, and return. The committee’s track record of negotiations with Damascus is by no means a string of uninterrupted successes. However, the committee certainly has benefited the community, and its small victories are particularly noteworthy given how few models of effective mediation between restive communities and central authorities are available in Syria. This record should give response actors reason to follow the developments.

If the initiative to unite all of Dar’a governorate under the umbrella of a single, expanded Central Committee does bear fruit, it will prompt concern over the role of Russia. Currently, this initiative should be seen in the light of Russia’s sponsorship of attempts to expand the 5th Corps governorate-wide, including via recruitment by Ahmad Al-Oudeh (see: Syria Update 29 June). Given Russia’s vital importance to the Central Committee, it is probable that current efforts to expand the committee bear the imprimatur of Moscow. Russia has distinct reasons for supporting these efforts, including its ambition to prop up Damascus’s rule, and to lock out Iranian influence, in partial fulfillment of its regional commitment to Israel. Moreover, Russia has been at pains to corral the wildcat opposition sentiments that persist across southern Syria. If its unification efforts are successful in the long term, they may bring some stability to security throughout the south. A parallel civil arrangement may be equally impactful as a means of stabilizing the service and administrative affairs of the region.

2. Russia gives green light for Iran-Syria air defense partnership

Damascus: Media sources report that on 8 July, Iran and the Government of Syria signed a military cooperation agreement that opens the door for the deployment of Iranian missile defense systems to Syria. The deal was announced during a summit in Damascus between Iranian chief of staff Mohammed Bagheri and Syrian Minister of Defense Ali Abdullah Ayoub. Local media reported that Russia had blocked previous Syrian-Iranian defense agreements. However, Moscow reportedly relented after Iran agreed to an unconfirmed deal to withdraw the forces it supports from Libya.

The announcement comes at a particularly fraught time for Iran regionally. In Iran itself, a spate of explosions and catastrophic fires since the beginning of July is suspected to be a result of ramped-up industrial sabotage executed by Israel. This subversion follows Israel’s resumption of regular bombardment of Iran-linked and Hezbollah targets in Syria. Meanwhile, in Iraq, new Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi launched a crackdown in late June that resulted in the arrest of several members of the powerful Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, thus threatening the group’s relative operational autonomy.

Security dilemma

The Iranian-Syrian defense agreement is by no means guaranteed to be a game-changer in Syria, yet it is undeniably important for a multitude of reasons. First, the agreement complicates the already muddled picture of Russian-Iranian tensions. This is true not only in Syria itself but across the wider region. Iran’s recently announced support for the Government of National Accord in Libya pits it, with Turkey, against Russia in the intensifying proxy conflict. If true, the quid pro quo arrangement between Russia and Iran is an indicator of the growing overlap between the Syrian and Libyan contexts. Second, the maneuver may be seen as a calibrated response to the shadow war between Iran and Israel. Outright armed retaliation by Iran over a host of attacks by Israel poses an extreme risk of escalation, which Israel would likely welcome as an opportunity to draw on deep international support from a sympathetic U.S. administration. By contrast, beefing up missile defenses in Syria may afford Iranian forces and their allies greater operational security without the risk of directly antagonizing Israel. However, if the air defenses do effectively deter Israeli attacks or succeed in downing Israeli aircraft, the system’s presence will amplify the security dilemma and may well provoke more aggressive actions by Israel in Syria or elsewhere.

Finally, it is important to note that the terms of the missile system’s deployment are not currently known. Iran is expected to retain operational control over any defense systems it deploys in Syria, as Russia does with its own missile defense batteries. Currently, it is not clear that the defensive system will actually be used to target Israeli aircraft. Indeed, Russian air defenses have been inert in the face of Israeli bombardment of Syria, seemingly indifferent toward Israeli attempts to impose greater costs on Iran for maintaining a useful foothold in Syria (see: Syria Update 29 June). As we have noted, there is only a dim prospect of expelling Iranian forces from Syria altogether, but efforts to do so will likely continue unabated, thus creating ample opportunity for all parties to put the evolving security cooperation to the test. Miscalculations are possible across the board.

3. Parliamentary elections conducted in Government-held areas

Various Locations: On 19 July, the Government of Syria carried out parliamentary elections following a delay in voting due to the COVID-19 lockdown. The Government of Syria administered polling stations in all areas under its control, including portions of southern Idleb governorate that it recently recaptured from opposition forces. As expected, the Syrian opposition and the Self Administration rejected the elections. The Self Administration stated that “the Syrian People’s Assembly elections have no meaning. There will not be ballot boxes in our areas.” The elections are the third since the outbreak of the conflict. Up for grabs are 250 seats in the Syrian People’s Assembly.

Stagecraft, not statecraft

The electoral process fulfills a multitude of functions for the Government of Syria. A state media blitz has framed the elections as proof of Syria’s return to normalcy. Essential to this narrative is the routine execution of elections throughout Government-held territory, including As-Sweida — recent site of widespread, vocal anti-Government protests (see: Syria Update 15 June) — and newly recaptured portions of Idleb.

Functionally, the parliament plays an important role in the Syrian state apparatus. The parliament is often reflexively dismissed as a rubber stamp. While it is true that the legislative body’s independence is vanishingly small, it does play an important role as connective tissue between central authorities and important constituencies. As of writing, electoral results have not yet been announced. However, the results of the 2016 parliamentary elections suggest that the composition of the parliament is transforming as a result of the conflict.1 The incoming class of parliamentarians no longer reflects the traditional power base of Baath rule. In place of unionists, tribal leaders, the Sunni business elite, and other important community notables, a new cast of actors is rising. These actors are connected to the state not by party ideology, but by participation in the war itself. This does not necessarily signal a shift in the means by which the Syrian state will practice indirect rule in disparate communities. Traditional intermediaries likely will remain important. What it does suggest is a need to reward the efforts of wartime allies and to ensure their continued cooperation, potentially through their co-optation into the ruling system itself. This is an important step in laundering the images of these actors. They may, like Lebanon’s former wartime elite, convert conflict prowess into permanent power. The Syria conflict has been a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. If militia actors are able to cement their status electorally, they are likely to ensure that any peace dividend Syria does realize will be paid out primarily to the wealthy.

4. Lebanon-Syria border opened for refugee returns

Lebanon: On 12 July, local media reported that the border between Syria and Lebanon had reopened for refugees to return to Syria, following months in which regular returns were nearly frozen due to COVID-19 restrictions. Reportedly, Syrians will be allowed to cross the border within 18 hours of undergoing a PCR test for COVID-19 from an accredited hospital in Lebanon. Despite the border closure, some returns did continue. Data compiled by UN and local implementing partners indicate that 106 Syrians returned from Lebanon in June. It is especially notable that 86 percent of Syrian refugee returnees were reportedly motivated to return by worsening economic conditions in the country of displacement. Relatedly, on 15 July, Lebanese labor minister Lamia Yammine publicly announced that labor authorities will begin taking “the necessary legal measures against violators” of Lebanese labor laws “regarding the restricted Lebanese professions and foreign workers.”

Two countries, one crisis

Certainly, the public health imperatives of the coronavirus pandemic have impeded return to Syria. However, even the border closures did not halt all irregular crossings, particularly from Lebanon, as the nation’s economic implosion has supercharged the financial pressures on Syrian migrant workers, who are categorically limited to work in agriculture, construction, and menial labor. Social pressures are likely to intensify as well. The announcement of what may amount to a labor crackdown recapitulates the events of last summer. During a period of approximately two weeks during July 2019, Lebanese labor officials reportedly issued more than 1,000 fines and notices to businesses and individuals they said violated labor regulations — understood as a reference to employment of Syrians. While much of this pressure dissipated amid a wave of public protests in late 2019, the calm brought on by the pandemic lockdown is likely over. Now, Lebanon’s economic deterioration has left the middle class poor and the poor in a state of dismal economic hardship. The realignment of Lebanon’s economic foundations brings Syrian laborers and their Lebanese counterparts into direct competition over a shrinking pool of jobs for which compensation is consistently diminishing in value (see: Two Countries, One Crisis: The Impact of Lebanon’s Upheaval on Syria). As needs rise and hardship grows, Lebanon’s state apparatus will be compelled to demonstrate its responsiveness to community needs. This may require that it turn its attention to irregular foreign laborers.

5. First case of COVID-19 in Idleb as cases rise among health care workers

Bab El Hawa: On 9 July, local sources reported that northwest Syria recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19. The individual was a doctor working in the Bab El Hawa hospital, and contact tracing has reportedly revealed that the individual likely came into contact with at least 135 people. In parallel, the first confirmed coronavirus case was also recorded in Dar’a governorate, where the Syrian Arab Red Crescent stated that at least six of its volunteers have tested positive for COVID-19. Relatedly, on 15 July, local media reported that three individuals tested positive for COVID-19 in As-Sweida. Reportedly, the infected individuals had not traveled outside the governorate.

The beginning of an unwelcome new chapter

For months, adherence to guidelines on physical distancing and sanitary precautions have flagged throughout Syria. Although the official case count is relatively sanguine, these figures are in doubt, and many believe Syria is witnessing a quiet surge in cases. Currently, two interrelated trends are developing. First, there is an emerging pattern of cases among health care workers. Second, community spread and so-called “super-spreaders” are distinct — and worrying — possibilities. Now, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in northwest Syria heralds the beginning of a new stage in Syria’s pandemic response. The international response will be forced to go to great lengths to contain the spread of the virus in the region, which is among Syria’s most densely populated and arguably the most dismal. Of the 2.7 million Syrians displaced in northwest Syria, an estimated 1.3 million live in camps or informal shelters. Overcrowding and inadequate sanitation are among the key challenges in these areas, while prioritizing services and aid delivery in the area will be no easy task. Looking ahead, Syria’s overall caseload is expected to rise as cross-border traffic increases. The steep economic toll of halting commercial activities will militate against the reimposition of lockdown conditions, although less aggressive actions are possible. For instance, voters in Sunday’s parliamentary elections were forced to avoid congregating at polling places, in accordance with Ministry of Health decrees. Certainly, there is a public health justification for these restrictions. However, it is notable that they also furnish a pretext for limiting avenues to political organization and dissent.

6. Syrian duty free zones up for auction

Various Locations: On 15 July, media sources reported that the Syrian General Organization of Free Zones had put the administration of seven of Syria’s duty free zones up for public auction. The bond for each zone is set at $500,000 for each five-year renewable contract. On the auction block are licenses to operate duty free zones that include the airports of Damascus, Aleppo, and Lattakia, as well as the sea ports of Lattakia and Tartous. Also up for bid are duty free zones at crossings with Lebanon, via Jdeideh, and Jordan, via Nasib. This decision by the Government of Syria comes mere weeks after Rami Makhlouf’s retail company Ramak Duty Free was removed from managing the facilities. Relatedly, on 12 July, Makhlouf published a Facebook video in which he decried a string of arrests targeting personnel of his corporate empire. An estimated 71 individuals, or more, associated with Makhlouf’s business and social interests have been arrested, including 40 Syriatel employees, and 31 individuals associated with the Al-Bustan Association.

Meet the new boss, same as the old one

With his corporate empire beset on all sides, Rami Makhlouf has seen his corporate portfolio systematically uprooted in recent months. Brick by brick, a patchwork of regulatory actors and state institutions has dismantled Maklhouf’s Syrian businesses. In May, Makhlouf’s Syriatel and rival telecoms firm MTN were slapped with a joint fine amounting to $180 million over unpaid taxes (see: Syria Update 4 May). In June, Syriatel was delisted from the Damascus Stock Exchange, and various subsidiaries and related entities have also come under fire. To date, the actions taken against Makhlouf’s businesses were theoretically reversible. The public auctioning of rights to the duty free zones furnishes concrete evidence that the Syrian state will divest itself of entanglement with Makhlouf, likely permanently.

Attempts by Makhlouf to cast himself as the champion of ordinary workers and the Alawi community have evidently failed. Unverified rumors suggest that Russia attempted — and failed — to secure Makhlouf safe passage out of Syria. Many believe that Asma Al-Assad is the driving force behind the public travails of Makhlouf. This rumor is impossible to establish. For Makhlouf, returning from the brink is likely impossible — there are few second acts in Syrian public life. Business-wise, control of the duty free zones is a lucrative prize and a source of much-needed foreign currency, which is likely to draw strong interest among Syria’s well-connected business elites. There is a deep bench of businessmen likely willing to fill Makhlouf’s shoes.

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 ‘shadow economy’ in Syria has reached 70%: What does it mean?

What Does it Say? Syria’s shadow economy has grown to account for an estimated 70 percent of Syria’s total economic output, albeit without government oversight. Among the profitable illegal activities that underup this informal system are the trades in weapons and drugs, as well as theft and human trafficking.

Reading Between the Lines: As the Syrian economy continues to deteriorate, crime and illicit activities are likely to become normalized as individual livelihood opportunities vanish.

Source: Alsouria

Language: Arabic

Date: 7 July 2020

National Security battles smuggling

What Does it Say? The Government of Syria has cracked down on border control and smuggling activities between Lebanon and Syria, stopping several trucks attempting to cart  goods out of Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: Syria cannot afford to forgo any economic resources, as its economy deteriorates. However, the preponderance of illicit activities in Syria makes it clear that state efforts to root out corruption and smuggling are highly selective.

Source: Al-Akhbar

Language: Arabic

Date: 14 July 2020

The road to justice for Syria goes through Europe

What Does it Say? European states have been trying and prosecuting Syrians in Europe for war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Reading Between the Lines: Given the intransigence of the Security Council, criminal justice for Syrians may have to come in a piecemeal fashion as justice catches up with individuals who leave Syria for better opportunities elsewhere. There is a real possibility that systemic abuses and institutional abusers will go unpunished, particularly inside Syria.

Source: Middle East Institute

Language: English

Date: 14 July 2020

West Looks for Ways to Combat Assad’s Latest Weapon: International Aid

What Does it Say? International aid to Syria is a political football. Russia and China’s votes at the UN signify a crass political calculation on their part. Although aid needs are rising, they continue to cut off the most efficient means of aid delivery, thus hoping to starve opposition-held area and force aid delivery through Damascus. 

Reading Between the Lines:  Aid delivery has always been political, especially within the Syria conflict. In order to circumvent the malign effects of this politicization, donors will need to be creative with new methods of aid delivery, including by operating through local partners.

Source: Haaretz

Language: English

Date: 14 July 2020

War Profiteers in Syria Enter Politics

What Does it Say? Among the potential outcomes of the parliamentary elections is the possibility that this parliament will seek to ratify a new constitution that grants Bashar Al-Assad license to remain in power for decades.  

Reading Between the Lines: Critically important to the elections is the makeup of the parliament itself. As old Baath Party apparatchiks have been put on the backfoot in the parliament, a new class of militia-linked businessmen has come into power.

Source: Center for Global Policy

Language: English

Date: 13 July 2020

UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria Kevin Kennedy: Closing Bab al-Salameh ‘endangers the lives of children’

What Does it Say?  The UN border crossing to Syria in Bab al-Salameh has been closed, leaving only one crossing for humanitarian aid delivery into the rebel-held territory of Syria, Bab al-Hawa.

Reading Between the Lines: UN access to vulnerable people outside the Government of Syria-controlled areas has been severely limited. It is clear that the Government of Syria is attempting to force all aid to be channeled through their areas to reap all its benefits.

Source: Syria Direct

Language: English

Date: 13 July 2020

How Southern Syria Has Been Transformed Into a Regional Powder Keg

What Does it Say? Southern Syria has been marked by unrest since its reconciliation in July 2018. The intervention of regional powers Jordan and Israel was a key feature of the southern offensive, and their security interests in shaping the region will likely be a major factor in keeping Damascus from re-asserting full control in the future.  

Reading Between the Lines: While continued disorder is likely in southern Syria, the inability of Damascus to impose its will in the south creates room for Russia to pursue a relatively independent agenda of its own.

Source: Carnegie

Language: English

Date: 14 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.