27 July 2020
Potemkin parliament: Baathists consolidate control as access to power shifts
In Depth Analysis
On 21 July, Syrian media reported the official results of the country’s 19 July parliamentary elections. As expected, candidates belonging to the National Unity list secured a firm parliamentary majority, winning 177 of 250 available seats. As the electoral vehicle of the Baath Party, the National Unity list is neither national nor a signifier of Syrian unity. Voting stations were available only in areas directly controlled by the Government of Syria. This limitation effectively excluded the vast majority of the estimated 3.1 million Syrians who live outside Government-held areas in the northeast and northwest of the country (see: Syria Update 20 July). Even behind the front of factional unity, Baath candidates claimed an outright majority of seats — 166 — and the remaining seats went almost entirely to marginal parties that are adjuncts to the Baathist apparatus. Among nominal independents, many have economic or conflict-related ties to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, which are as strong as the ideological linkages of the Baath Party itself. Moreover, all candidates for parliament are vetted by state security services, thus precluding the entry of earnest political opposition.
Of all the assessments of the elections, even the most nuanced have routinely failed to advance beyond the impression that the parliament is merely a ‘rubber stamp’ for the ruling regime. Among Western analysts, foreign governments, and much of the Syrian population itself, there is a strong tendency to dismiss the elections as a farce carried out with the sole purpose of consolidating the Al-Assad regime’s power. This criticism is not without warrant. The elections can be criticized for a multitude of procedural reasons, ranging from balloting process, to list formation, electoral irregularities, and the location of polling places. Nonetheless, it is critically important to understand how the elections shed light on the Government of Syria’s strategy to stabilize its authority along two axes: among important demographic constituencies and across various geographies. The elections signify that the conflict is at a crossroads, and new relationships are emerging as government transitions from the all-consuming need to prosecute the war itself toward the uneasy process of long-term stabilization. Consequently, new actors are entering national politics, and the linkages between Damascus and various constituencies and nodes of power are changing.
Cronies out, warlords in?
The elections have frequently been distilled to a simplistic formula: out with the old (party apparatchiks), in with the new (warlords and militia leaders). This approach rings true in some places, yet such results are not monolithic. For instance, in Aleppo, the firebrand MP Fares Shehabi lost his seat, and only one candidate from Aleppo’s powerful Berri family won election. Meanwhile, Hussam Qaterji — among the most notorious of Syria’s new class of war economy elites — won a spot in parliament. However, in other parts of the country, candidates who represent the Baath Party’s traditional power base performed more or less to expectation.
Overall, electoral returns do demonstrate the Government of Syria’s need to consolidate control, yet this dynamic clearly differs according to local context, the historic trajectory of the conflict, and the figures involved. Such conditions may explain the defeat of Mohammad Al-Fares of the powerful, pro-Government Tayy tribe in northeast Syria, or the surprise withdrawal of Muhammad Hamsho, an influential business person embroiled in a corruption scandal at the Ministry of Education. In many cases, such a transition has taken place through the rise of newly empowered economic elites, including some who are untarnished by overt linkages to the Baathist apparatus, but this is not a universal condition. Ultimately, loyalists will continue to dominate formal governance roles in Syria. However, the sidelining of Al-Fares, Hamsho, and others points to the ambiguity surrounding the process by which these figures access power.
Transitional governance: command and control
The strong electoral performance of militia leaders is likely a deliberate strategy. Bringing militia leaders and the prime beneficiaries of the war economy into parliament first neutralizes and then co-opts them into the governing regime. This eliminates a potential source of domestic dissent. It also reflects the reality that many such actors wield considerable influence in their communities, and may, therefore, be important intermediaries for indirect rule. Finally, this is a signifier of the current state of the conflict. The transition of militia leaders to formal power can be viewed as a means of safeguarding their own material interests as Syria enters a protracted state of transition. Many conflict actors can now retire from the battlefield without fearing the loss of wartime gains.
Political demographic change
Being vocally supportive of Al-Assad is not enough to retain power. The example made of Rami Makhlouf shows that no matter how indispensable a figure is to the Syrian ruling apparatus, no one is irreplaceable. The ouster of Shehabi in Aleppo is a prime example of this dynamic in parliament. As Shehabi later remarked, “the message was loud and clear: either blind obedience to the growing system of corruption or exclusion and punishment.”
The show must go on
Many Syrians are seemingly weary of managed democratic exercises. A total of 2,649 candidates vied for office in the last round of parliamentary elections in 2016. This round of elections saw 1,658 candidates run, among whom were a reported 200 women. Diminished electoral competition may reflect tightening controls on candidacy as well as popular fatigue vis-à-vis a dubious electoral process. Officially, voter turnout was 33.17 percent. However, some analysts have speculated that actual turnout was far lower. At least five polling places — four in Aleppo and one in Deir-ez-Zor — conducted a recount after the number of ballots cast exceeded the number of registered voters. In Hama, demonstrators publicly protested the electoral results. Local sources report that state employees and university students were, in certain cases, forced to cast ballots.
All of this suggests a potential narrowing of space for legitimate democratic expression in Syria. As such, the results will have a tangible impact on Syria and the international development and humanitarian response itself. The processes highlighted by the elections will shape the Syrian state’s management of internal political dissent, its outlook toward the constitutional committee process, and, potentially, the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. However, it is also important to note that such democratic outcomes are not new in Syria. Bashar Al-Assad won 99.7 percent of the vote en route to assuming the presidency in the year 2000. At that time, some polling places were reportedly outfitted with sharp objects so voters could prick their fingers and mark their ballots in favor of Al-Assad in their own blood.
The narrowing of political space in Syria suggests that in the future, locally driven initiatives to bring about change must manifest in novel ways. Nominally apolitical initiatives will likely become more important as a result. This may drive the need to seek change through more localized initiatives in civil society, labor organizing, or technocratic and economic fields.
Whole of Syria Review
1. Russia and Turkey complete first M4 patrol as HTS-National Army merger rumors swirl
Saraqab, Lattakia, M4: On 22 July, media sources reported that a joint Russian-Turkish patrol along the M4 highway was completed for the first time since the agreement between Putin and Erdogan on 5 March. The patrol covered the distance from Saraqab to Ein Elhur, close to Lattakia. This successful patrol by Russia and Turkey follows an attack last week targeting this same route (see: Syria Update 20 July). A previously unknown entity calling itself the Khattab Al-Shishani Brigade claimed responsibility for the VBIED blast. Relatedly, local sources report increasing movement surrounding a potential merger between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Turkey-backed National Army, as a result of increased meetings that have taken place between the two groups.
Cooperation and control
Both the completion of the joint patrol and the cautious advance toward armed group mergers have the potential to be watershed moments in northwest Syria. Both are likely driven primarily by Russian pressure. Both will be hard to implement and even harder to sustain over the long term.
Russia’s response to the VBIED attack on the joint patrol was unambiguous (see: Syria Update 20 July). Russian bombardment of Turkish-controlled areas made clear that aggression targeting Russian forces will not be tolerated, and the status quo in the northwest remains unacceptable to Moscow. The onus now falls on Turkey to make good on the 5 March deal to freeze frontlines in Idleb, and the two most critical tasks delegated to Turkey ultimately concern HTS (see: Syria Update 9 March). HTS has overtly impeded joint patrols on the M4, and infighting within the group has prevented Turkey from carrying out its most important mandate: leveraging its proxy forces and using its direct military presence to isolate extremist groups in Idleb.
There are roadblocks ahead. The successful completion of the joint Russian-Turkish patrol does not signify that future patrols will be spared attack by breakaway factions of HTS or other hardline groups. Even more uncertain is the fate of the armed group merger itself. By integrating within the National Army, HTS could, theoretically, shed its problematic identity as a terror group, to the potential satisfaction of Russia. In so doing, Turkey may achieve its goal of bringing HTS more directly under its umbrella, yet problems will abound. Despite the possibility of obfuscation, the specter of hardliners will persist. Questions will also remain over command and control. These will be especially thorny, given the comparative cohesiveness of HTS when contrasted with the fractious National Army. It is possible that HTS itself will fragment, and hardline factions may refuse to operate under the command and control of the National Army. This fragmentation has long been theorized, and it may be an unavoidable intermediate step for Turkey, but it will almost certainly prompt bloody inter-armed group clashes. If a formal merger does take place, limited clashes can be expected, while there is a distinct possibility that fiercer conflict will break out on a wider scale.
2. Government of Syria expropriates pistachio crop of displaced farmers
Kafr Zita, Hama governorate: On 21 July, local media sources reported that the Government of Syria Military and Security Committee of Hama had expropriated pistachio groves in northern rural Hama governorate to auction off the current harvest on the public market. The groves are in former opposition-held areas, including Kafr Zita, Ltamina, and Zakat, all within the Mharda region, recaptured by the Government of Syria in August 2019. The Government of Syria cited two reasons for confiscating the pistachio harvest. The first is to allocate the proceeds to the families of “martyrs.” The second reason is more provocative: the landowners now reside within “territories controlled by armed terrorist groups” (i.e., opposition-held territories further north).
Guilt by association
The legal rationale for the pistachio seizure is ominous because of the dangerous precedent that it sets, and because it is potentially irreversible. In the past, the Government of Syria has deployed two related reasons as justification for property seizures: opposition activists (criminalized under anti-terrorism legislation, such as Decree No. 63), or simple absenteeism (and the resulting inability to file the necessary paperwork). The present case marks a subtle but critical shift that may signal a step-change in the legal basis for asset seizures. The seizure order specifically singles out a property owner’s residence in opposition-held areas as a sufficient legal basis for dispossession. This stipulation sidesteps the need to prove that an individual committed acts punishable under existing anti-terror laws, and it establishes what amounts to guilt by association. It is not immediately clear whether such orders have been issued elsewhere. However, there is potential for sweeping impact, should the order be used more widely. If deployed to the maximum degree, the order may grant scope for en masse dispossession of millions of Syrians. The greatest impact would be felt among IDPs now residing in the northwest. Secondly, the danger that seizure may be irreversible is rooted in Law No. 61, which establishes that cultivators who work a parcel of agricultural land acquire the right to formally register that land as their property. This statute is another channel to potential dispossession.
There are alternate interpretations of the appropriation of the groves, including that the unique legal rationale deployed in Hama reflects the unique value of the assets in question. Northwest Syria’s history is characterized by malign developmental neglect on the part of central authorities. However, the region’s pistachio crops are a vital economic resource to the state, and Syria is estimated to be the world’s fourth-largest producer. Nuts are one of Syria’s few licit exports, and they are the third-largest export class, behind only olive oil and whole spice seeds, according to UN Comtrade data. Given Syria’s desperate need for foreign currency, the need to ensure a smooth pistachio harvest may explain the novel steps taken in Hama.
3. Israeli strike fells Hezbollah commander in Rural Damascus
Rural Damascus: On 21 July, media sources reported that Israeli airstrikes hit Government of Syria and Hezbollah positions south of Damascus. According to the Syrian Ministry of Defense, seven Government soldiers were injured in the incident; it also said air defense batteries downed most of the incoming missiles. Of note, Hezbollah later confirmed the death of one of its commanders, Ali Mohsen, in the missile strike. This development has raised questions about tensions between Lebanon and Israel, with various media sources claiming that Hezbollah’s pro forma media response to the incident is a prelude to future armed retaliation.
Hezbollah barks, but does it bite?
The Israeli strike is the first since the announcement of the joint Iranian-Syrian air defense agreement (see: Syria Update 20 July). The Israeli-Iranian shadow war in Syria is governed by unwritten yet unambiguous rules of engagement. Most notably, Israel is believed to avoid purposefully targeting Hezbollah forces for fear of dragging Hezbollah into a direct conflict in Lebanon — an outcome all parties have seemingly sought to avoid. The latest strike is therefore an aberration, thus signaling two possibilities. First, it is possible that the killing of a Hezbollah fighter was the inadvertent result of an operational error. The second possibility indicates the attack was a deliberate response to the Iranian-Syrian defense agreement. If true, this would suggest that, despite public statements to the contrary, Israel is prepared to countenance a more aggressive strategy targeting a wider gamut of targets in Syria. Israel will likely be able to escalate in this way only so long as Hezbollah refrains from retaliating and escalating in kind, thus risking a greater confrontation. Currently, Hezbollah’s freedom to respond directly is limited by its own domestic political vulnerability. These conditions will likely persist as long as Lebanon’s dominant political blocs struggle to preserve the decades’ old security consensus that acquiesces to Hezbollah’s presence despite the increasingly negative scrutiny this brings. As we have noted in the past, the costs of miscalculation in such a contest may be catastrophic. Even if escalating tensions are contained within Syria, hotspots linked to Iran and Hezbollah, such as western Dar’a, southern Rural Damascus, Aleppo city, and eastern Deir-ez-Zor governorate, are likely to see airstrikes on a punishing scale that will jeopardize local security conditions and complicate the programming environment for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, armed exchanges in southern Lebanon will remain possible.
4. Report: HTS, not the Salvation Government, controls Idleb’s most profitable sectors
Idleb Governorate: On 21 July, Syrian local media published an investigation claiming that HTS retains effective control over Idleb’s most lucrative service-based economic resources. The report claims that the Salvation Government (SG) is, contrary to common understanding, confined to operating unprofitable sectors such as security, education, and sanitation. Specifically, the report examines the four most profitable entities operating in Idleb: Watad Petroleum, the General Electricity Company (CasGec), the Public Management for Crossing, and SYR CONNECT (the main internet provider in Idleb). It cites three facts as evidence for this assertion. The first is that the SG continues to receive administrative funding from HTS, despite the former’s hypothetical role as direct administrator of the most profitable sectors. The second is the absence of the SG’s logo in decisions and statements issued by any of the four entities. Thirdly, the Sham News Agency, which is the official media outlet covering SG activities, does not report on these companies, thus suggesting deliberate obfuscation on its part. In addition to the assistance provided by HTS, the SG’s only substantial financial resource is the fees it levies from licensing vehicles and issuing real property permits.
Who governs what? An incomplete picture
Reports concerning the independence of SG institutions are critically important to the international Syria response, and they have potentially dramatic impact on compliance and due diligence practices throughout Idleb. In actual fact, the relationship between SG entities and HTS is likely more complicated — and fluid — than the report cited above admits. There are several explanations for the complex relationships between the SG, HTS, and the patchwork of administrative institutions in northwest Syria. Indeed, HTS does attempt to maintain a balance between its direct influence and the preservation of the quasi-independent status of governance structures that is needed to legitimize civil and economic entities in areas of its control. As such, SG should be understood as an agglomeration of institutions rather than a unified governance body with a single ideological direction or funding stream. On the whole, the SG functions as an umbrella providing legitimacy for these entities and activities. While the legitimacy of the SG itself is under increasing scrutiny, the SG does provide administrative oversight, and it regulates the less profitable, but vital, sectors such as education and civil registries.
The SG is one in a long line of administrative structures established by HTS and its predecessor groups as a response to political imperatives. Since the establishment of the SG in November 2017, it has been difficult to draw clear lines between the HTS and the SG. It is worth remembering that the SG was established by the merger of several service entities previously run by HTS, such as the Public Service Administration (PSA), the Management of the Liberated Areas in Idleb, the General Electricity Company, the Islamic Police, and the Public Management for Crossing. However, it has never been clear how far HTS divested from these entities and subordinated them under the SG. Similar questions persist regarding newer entities, such as Watad Petroleum and SYR CONNECT. This ambiguity lies at the center of uncertainty over independence today. In this sense, the continued uncertainty about the future of the SG may prompt HTS to preserve effective but self-sustaining institutions that can be merged as independent components in any new governance structures to be established if or when the SG collapses as internal and external pressures accumulate.
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? In a frank assessment, the Damascus-registered INGOs discuss the extreme challenges facing NGOs providing principled humanitarian assistance in Government-controlled areas of Syria.
Reading Between the Lines: Aid is becoming more politicized, which makes it more difficult for assistance to flow into areas and to the people most in need.
Source: Norwegian Refugee Council, OXFAM
Date: 15 July 2020
What Does It Say? Former reconciled fighters in southern Syria under Russian patronage are taking advantage of the anti-Iran and anti-Government sentiments to expand their influence and exert greater control over the area.
Reading Between the Lines: While it is true that the 5th Corps largely consists of former opposition fighters, it is critically important that analysts not overstate the potential for overt anti-Government sentiments to be the driving force behind their future undertakings. Certainly, the relationship between Dar’a and Damascus will be fraught, but there is the possibility that former opposition figures can be co-opted into a system of mutual benefit that neutralizes lingering opposition sentiment.
Source: Institute of the Study of War
Date: 17 July 2020
What Does It Say? The ongoing conflict in Syria has experienced regional intervention with foreign military forces on the ground from Turkey, Russia, and the U.S..
Reading Between the Lines: The report calls particular attention to an overlooked dynamic: the direct relationship between foreign and domestic policy. In the present case, Turkey’s overseas militarism has amplified anti-democratic tendencies domestically.
Date: 14 July 2020
What Does It Say? Arab states are debating whether to allow Syria’s return to the Arab League, an issue made more complex by the Caesar Sanctions.
Reading Between the Lines: Allowing Syria to rejoin the Arab League could put other members at risk of sanctions, particularly if the U.S. follows through on its threats to apply maximum pressure to Iran.
Source: The Syrian Observer
Date: 22 July 2020
What Does It Say? The use of Turkish lira in northern Syria is becoming more prevalent and debate has ensued over whether all wages should be paid in Turkish liras to preserve Syrians’ purchasing power in opposition-held areas.
Reading Between the Lines: The continued and increasing presence of Turkey in northern Syria, both economically and militarily, are clear indicators that Turkey is expanding its influence in the region with the intention to remain long term.
Source: Omran for Strategic Studies
Date: 1 July 2020
What Does It Say? A Russian military site in Hasakeh was exposed to shelling from an unidentified plane, believed to be Turkish. This incident follows the Russian bombing on Turkish-backed factions in al-Bab.
Reading Between the Lines: The shelling on Hasakeh could be an underlying message from Turkey to Russia, suggesting that there are limitations to RUssia’s ability to unilaterally dictate the terms of their complex relationship in Syria.
Source: Asharq Al-Awsat
Date: 18 July 2020
What Does It Say? As the settlement agreement in southern Syria nears its second anniversary, the region is still defined by security chaos. This report breaks down the patterns of kidnappings and assassinations.
Reading Between the Lines: Despite repeated efforts to bring the area under control, all parties operating in the area — the Government of Syria, Russia, and Iran — have failed to quell the chaos that defines southern Syria.
Source: Syria Direct
Date: 21 July 2020
What Does It Say? The UN Security Council has been compelled to accept a Russian-backed plan for a single border crossing for UN convoys, limiting how much aid can be delivered to Idleb.
Reading Between the Lines: Vulnerable populations in Idleb will now have even more difficulty getting basic necessities due to the reduced number of cross border aid avenues available. Moreover, the move
Source: The New Arab
Date: 20 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.