3 August 2020
Southern strategy: Russia is up. Is Damascus down?
In Depth Analysis
On 28 July, 5th Corps fighters erupted into a public demonstration against the Government of Syria during a graduation ceremony for newly trained recruits in Busra Al-Sham, in eastern rural Dar’a governorate. In video footage from the service, demonstrators gathered in a large crowd and chanted traditional slogans of the Syrian opposition, amidst Government of Syria flags and photographs of President Bashar Al-Assad. Local sources estimate that as many as 800 fighters were present during the ceremony, wearing a mixture of military uniforms and civilian clothing.
The incident is among the most overtly political in a string of recent provocations linked to the 5th Corps. These incidents come as the force expands its military footprint and consolidates control in eastern rural Dar’a following months of simmering tensions and occasional clashes between 5th Corps units and Iran-backed forces in central southern Syria. In late June, the prominent former opposition leader Ahmad Al-Oudeh returned to the public stage with a stirring public speech in Busra Al-Sham, vowing to create a unified “army” to defend Horan, a region vaguely inclusive of most of Dar’a, Quneitra, and As-Sweida governorates (see: Syria Update 29 June). Throughout July, efforts have also been underway to expand the remit of the Dar’a Central Committee, a Dar’a city-based entity that has spearheaded civil negotiations with Damascus (see: Syria Update 20 July). If both initiatives succeed, they will impart more stability and unified control over eastern Dar’a than at any time since reconciliation in July 2018.
Clearly, important social, political, and military changes are afoot in southern Syria. What these changes mean for the region’s trajectory and aid activities there is less certain. The most pertinent factor may be the intentions of Russia. Prominent analysts have interpreted the recent rise of the 5th Corps as a Russian undertaking designed to drive a wedge between reconciled former opposition fighters and the Government of Syria itself. Certainly, Russia appears to tolerate the 5th Corps’ anti-Government activities, and in some cases, Russia may suborn such activities outright. However, the most suggestive assessments have almost universally mischaracterized the conditions now shaping southern Syria in two crucial respects.
The first mischaracterization relates to Russia’s agenda in southern Syria. Analysts and journalists alike continue to frame the rise of the 5th Corps as a harbinger of a “second revolution” or a return to organized anti-Government of Syria military mobilization in the south. As such, it has been suggested that Russian forces in Syria have seized on “growing anti-Assad and anti-Iran sentiment to forcibly expand their influence” in the south — “at the expense” of Iran and the Government of Syria.
This reading of events fails to take into account the nature of the pragmatic partnership between Russia and the Government of Syria. In actual terms, Russia’s long-term agenda in southern Syria has changed little since the southern offensive and the region’s en masse reconciliation in July 2018. Since the southern opposition’s military collapse in the face of parallel Russian and Government of Syria military offensives, the chief aim of Russia’s military efforts has remained the reduction of overall violence and the elimination of outright opposition sentiment. The primary means of achieving this have been to leverage viable, locally legitimate military and security forces to fill gaps in the security umbrella hoisted by overstretched Government of Syria security forces. Certainly, Russian tactics have responded to evolving security and political realities. However, the overall agenda pursued by Russia appears largely unchanged, and in the south, it has revolved around the 5th Corps since reconciliation. In this respect, it is critical to note that the 5th Corps is potent not because it erodes the Government of Syria’s own military presence, but because it provides a security umbrella that the Government itself cannot.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends
The second mischaracterization relates to the intentions of the fighters themselves. Many analysts have mistakenly characterized recent security incidents, ongoing military recruitment, and public demonstrations by armed actors as being motivated primarily by anti-Government sentiment. Certainly, there are important ideological underpinnings to these activities, and former opposition affiliation is common throughout the ranks of the 5th Corps. However, a multitude of pragmatic drivers is also critical to the group’s growth. Individual military recruitment has been motivated, at least in part, by a desire to secure Russian security pledges and to normalize status vis-a-vis influential armed actors. Financial motivations have also taken on growing significance as economic conditions have worsened. Anti-state protest will likely remain an important vehicle to express popular discontent, including dissatisfaction over the status of services and fluid security conditions in post-reconciliation communities. However, local armed groups in Dar’a, As-Sweida, and elsewhere are unlikely to use their armed might as a platform for direct military confrontation with the Government of Syria. It is far more likely that they will use their collective power as a lever against Damascus in negotiations over services, mobility, and long-standing grievances such as detainees.
A positive-sum contest
These realities bear important implications for the trajectory of the south. While the expanded presence of the 5th Corps will likely prevent the Government of Syria from consolidating its control in eastern Dar’a outright, it is also unlikely to weaken it further. In reality, the Government of Syria’s security presence in much of southern Syria is superficial, patchy, and ineffective. If Russia succeeds in bringing a constellation of disorganized armed cliques under unified control, it will bring greater stability and uniform security to the area in a way that Damascus itself cannot. Crucially, the Government of Syria will benefit from such an initiative, particularly if it neutralizes persistently nettlesome former opposition fighters who would otherwise have carte blanche to operate independently.
This reality resurfaces old debates over the nature of Government of Syria control in southern Syria — namely, whether Damascus can truly be said to exercise authority in the absence of a strong military presence of its own. The answer is likely to be determined in part by Russia’s approach in the future. If the 5th Corps succeeds in fixing its position more firmly, Russia may see a commensurate rise in its standing as a guarantor of security conditions in the area. This may have important implications for security and mobility permissions for aid actors operating in the south. Moreover, Russia may gain important leverage over Damascus as a result, which may be instrumental in higher-level matters related to the conflict as a whole. However, it is important to bear in mind that Russia’s gains do not necessarily come at the expense of Damascus. The two actors have long maintained conflicting strategies to achieve broadly overlapping conflict objectives. As far as the 5th Corps is concerned, the litmus test of this relationship will be what newly empowered fighters serving under Russia’s remit actually do, not what they say.
Whole of Syria Review
1. Quietly, COVID-19 outbreak rages across Government areas
Various locations: COVID-19 cases continue to grow in Government-held areas, with the Ministry of Health (MoH) recording 694 new infections since the beginning of the pandemic with at least 154 new cases last week, according to media reports available at the time of writing. On 29 July, media sources citing the MoH reported that of new cases in Government-held areas last week, 104 were individuals returning to Syria from abroad, and 44 were health workers. Of note, media sources continue to offer conflicting data on caseload across Syria, and there are media reports that actual infections and deaths far exceed figures published by Government of Syria officials. To that end, the state’s testing capacity remains anemic, and as of July 24, the MoH reported that only 12,416 tests have been performed since the beginning of the outbreak.
In an effort to contain the crisis during Eid Al-Adha festivities, the Ministry of Islamic Endowments requested that mosque committees tighten precautionary measures in their governorates, and informed the public that the Eid prayers would not take place in mosques of Damascus and Rural Damascus governorates this year. Additionally, media sources reported that Damascus imposed an additional $200 fee on travelers returning from abroad, reportedly to cover the cost of a COVID-19 test and a night at Ebla Hotel as they wait for their results to be processed.
Disorganization, more than obfuscation
The lack of definitive figures for COVID-19 infections is a likely indicator that coordination is absent between hospitals, healthcare centers, and public health institutions. Certainly, there have been credible doubts about the timing, transparency, and comprehensiveness of the Government’s disclosures related to the pandemic. However, shortcomings in capacity and a lack of a clear, directed, and efficient procedural response to the pandemic are also important factors in the inconsistent reporting. Disorganization is further evinced by the infection of at least 44 healthcare workers. These infections attest to the limited implementation of appropriate hygienic and sanitary protocols within the healthcare system. Crucially, they also risk battering the already precarious healthcare system due to the impact upon trained healthcare workers whose experience and ingenuity are needed now more than ever.
As elsewhere in the world, the response to the virus is driven by factors that transcend health care imperatives alone. Economic conditions will remain critically important in this respect. Despite a rise in the number of infected individuals, the Government of Syria is reluctant to reimpose a strict lockdown in areas of its control, fearing a further deterioration of the fragile economic situation. Furthermore, already volatile economic conditions, coupled with the COVID-19 outbreak, may translate into protests and low-level security incidents, including petty crimes and local disputes (see: Syria Update 15 June). Indeed, some communities fear that rising COVID-19 infections may prompt localized lockdowns. In all cases, Damascus remains unlikely to tolerate popular criticism. While it does appear that Syria’s response to the pandemic has been shaped in large part by material limitations, political influences have clearly played a role. A prominent example in recent days was seen in the case of former MP Fares Shehabi, who expressed discontent over the corruption of Syria’s ruling political elite after his ouster from parliament. Last week, the MoH rejected a project led by Shehabi to build a commercial ventilator in Syria, despite earlier praise for the pandemic-related initiative on the part of the Government. The case speaks to the reality that even when administrative imperatives exist, political allegiance remains pertinent.
The Government of Syria’s attempts to implement public health measures, such as mandatory COVID-19 testing upon arrival for repatriated Syrian citizens, may help limit the spread of the pandemic. That said, as long as informal cross-border activity continues between Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, numbers will continue to increase. As community spread continues under the radar and reports of high caseloads continue, it is probable that the pandemic is likely to remain, to some extent, intractable.
2. Salvation Government mandates Turkish lira as official currency
Idleb governorate: On 27 July, the Salvation Government Public Institution of Cash Management issued a decision banning the circulation of the Syrian pound in areas under its control, thus forcing the general circulation of the Turkish lira. This restriction follows parallel decisions by the Salvation Government and the Syrian Interim Government in early June to introduce the currency into northwest Syria for daily use, including paying salaries in Turkish lira, in response to the Syrian pound’s deep volatility. According to the UN, shipments of Turkish currency have already begun to cross the border into opposition-held areas of northern Idleb.
Relatedly, the market exchange rate for the Syrian pound has slumped to 2,240 SYP/USD. This dip follows a brief interlude of several weeks in which the market exchange rate had steadily improved, nearly approximately 2,100 SYP/USD. The worsening economic conditions in Government-held areas coincide with the U.S. Government’s imposition of new sanctions on several figures in Syria, including President Bashar Al-Assad’s 18-year-old son, Hafez, and his cousin, General Zuheir Tawfik Al-Assad, head of the Syrian Arab Army’s 5th Division.
The Salvation Government’s decision to ban the Syrian pound and cement the status of the Turkish lira makes an official policy of the pragmatic reality brought about by Syria’s economic volatility. With the deteriorating value of the pound over the past year, alongside severe fluctuations in the past six months, the Salvation Government is naturally attempting to stabilize the economy by cutting out the weak link in the macroeconomic chain: the currency linked to Syria’s tottering state finances (see: Cash crash: Syria’s economic collapse and the fragmentation of the state). Adopting the Turkish lira on an official basis will probably circumvent much of the market instability now felt in Government-held areas, and it is likely to strengthen bilateral commercial linkages with Turkey, which are already robust. The move may have adverse consequences for Damascus. It is possible that already limited trade and smuggling between the northwest and Government-held areas will atrophy, thus depriving Government areas of much-needed dollar flows. Overall, the short-lived improvement in exchange rates for the Syrian pound was likely a temporary aberration. With the newly increased rate for remittances introduced by the Central Bank of Syria, Government-held areas did indeed experience a brief influx of dollars via cash transfers from the diaspora, which had delayed these transfers due to adverse rates. This effect was likely amplified by the onset of Eid Al-Adha. However, media reports indicate that the prices of goods continue to increase, and there are no signs of any of the fundamental weaknesses of the Syrian economy have improved.
The sanctions are merely the latest salvo in the U.S. pressure campaign to isolate Syria and punish the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Several points are clear. Future sanctions have marginal utility. As much of the Syrians apparatus is already under sanction, future measures are unlikely to have significant coercive force or direct impact to alter behavior. In this sense, the sanctions are likely intended as a deterrent against outside actors contemplating normalization with Syrian state entities, influential figures, and private enterprises. This is likely to succeed, with the exception of a limited number of Iranian, Russian Chinese, and Lebanese entities that are insensitive to sanctions.
3. Tensions flare at Lebanon-Israeli border
South Lebanon: On 27 July, Hezbollah and Israeli forces exchanged fire after Hezbollah fighters reportedly attempted to infiltrate Israeli territory through the Shebaa farms in southern Lebanon, in ostensible retaliation for a deadly Israeli airstrike that killed a Hezbollah commander in Syria days earlier. According to media reports, Hezbollah fighters fired an anti-tank missile into Israel, and Israeli forces shelled a civilian house in southern Lebanon during the exchange. Hezbollah subsequently denied that its soldiers had clashed with their Israeli counterparts. The group’s statement asserted: “there has been no clash or shooting on [Hezbollah’s] part in the events of the day until now. Rather, it was only one party, which was the fearful, anxious and tense” — a reference to Israeli forces stationed at the border. Hezbollah has previously claimed that it would seek revenge for the death of one of its commanders, Ali Mohsen, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike on the outskirts of Damascus the previous week (see: Syria Update 27 July). Of note, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doubled down on claims of Hezbollah’s complicity, and he stated that the exchange is a grave concern that will be met by force, warning that Israeli forces are “ready for any scenario.”
Lebanon and Syria on edge as Israel and Hezbollah flex
The rules of engagement between Israel and Hezbollah (and by extension, Iran, Syria, and the Lebanese state) are unchanged. On the whole, it is likely that this latest flare-up is part of the natural ebb and flow in the parties’ long-running relationship, which is hostile, but of mutual convenience. In that respect, both Hezbollah and Israeli forces must walk a fine line. On the one hand, they must convince domestic constituencies they are willing to assert vital interests abroad, including through occasional use of force. On the other hand, they must do so without appearing overtly bellicose in the eyes of domestic political antagonists or each other. Indeed, both factions face entrenched political opposition domestically as a result of simmering political disputes, parochial interests, economic woes, and the complications of the COVID-19 response. On 26 July, Hezbollah deputy commander Naim Qassem stated that outright war with Israel is “unlikely.” While there are no strong indicators that further escalation is on the near horizon, Netanyahu has promised vigilance “in all the arenas of Israel’s defense” — a potential reference to its activities in Syria and Iran. It is probable that Israel will, for the time being, seek to assert its standing by targeting Iran-linked forces in Syria, while continuing to pursue its campaign of cyber-attacks and industrial espionage that has ravaged Iranian facilities in recent weeks. As for Hezbollah itself, past understandings with Israel are likely to hold, and Israel will likely refrain from directly targeting Hezbollah forces in Syria, at least for the time being.
4. Reinforcements mount in Idleb as pressure builds
Idleb, Lattakia, Aleppo: Violations of the Idleb ceasefire are continuing as the Government of Syria sends increasing reinforcements to frontline areas in northwest Syria. On 25 July, media sources reported that large numbers of Iranian fighters and Iran-backed militias were en route to southern Idleb governorate to reinforce Government of Syria forces positioned on frontlines with opposition forces. Of note, two days earlier, media reports indicated that the Tiger Forces, an elite armored division supported closely by Russia, also reinforced southern Idleb. These movements followed serious exchanges on the frontlines. Media sources indicate that multiple civilians in southern Idleb had been injured as a result of artillery fired by the Government of Syria on 26 July. Relatedly, on 29 July, local media reported that shelling by the Government of Syria wounded five civilians in the village of Elzawiya. In response to the attacks, opposition forces reportedly conducted attacks on Government of Syria positions in Kafurnable.
Meanwhile, local sources indicate that talks of a merger between Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and the National Army remain ongoing. Relatedly, the confrontation between HTS and other extremist groups in the region has slowed, but local sources indicate that many of the factions continue to prepare for an imminent confrontation.
A paper tiger?
Ceasefire violations by the Government of Syria are nothing new. What is significant is that the Government of Syria appears intent on applying greater pressure on Turkey, the guarantor of the opposition forces in northwest Syria. Precisely what message the shelling is intended to send it debatable. It is possible that the Government seeks to compel Turkey to hasten its efforts to reach a durable accommodation between HTS and the mainline opposition, to isolate radical factions as well as HTS’s own hardline wing. However, it is also possible that despite Russia’s apparent efforts to stabilize current conditions for the time being, Damascus aims to disrupt the current status quo and return to the battlefield in hopes of reclaiming portions of rebel-held territory, namely the vulnerable Jabal Al Zawiya area south of the M4 motorway.
Meanwhile, local sources note that relative calm has set in between HTS and other extremist groups since confrontations broke out in July (see: Syria Update 27 July). Whether the Government of Syria’s reinforcements are merely a show of force and an empty threat — or an augur of an earnest willingness to countenance renewed conflict in the area — is yet to be seen. Forcing the merger of HTS and the National Army would bring Turkey closer to fulfilling its commitment to Russia, but it will also give Ankara a stronger hand in Idleb, via more direct control over a larger military force. Despite credible doubts about the uniformity of purpose and the command and control over such a military formation, its expansion would pose an overt challenge to Damascus. Meanwhile, the Tiger Forces, in particular, have been deployed to crucial frontlines throughout the conflict. This military deployment does not mean Idleb is on the cusp of a new stage of the offensive — indeed, there are currently no other frontlines of equal significance to the Government. However, the return of more fighters to the battlefield in northwest Syria is a signal that the Government is likely to prioritize its agenda in the region.
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? The status of protracted conflicts and unrest in both Syria and Iraq contexts creates a potential seedbed for a resurgence, amid U.S-Iran tensions, COVID-19, and depressed economic conditions.
Reading Between the Lines: ISIS has changed. The group is more decentralized, less cohesive, and seemingly driven by fragmented local interests than at its apex, half a decade ago. Cells affiliated to ISIS continue to pose a risk, but qualitative assessments of the group’s capabilities and activities suggest that its ambitions are more localized and fragmented.
Date: 24 July 2020
What Does It Say? Many Syrians are resorting to bartering goods due to the increasingly high cost of living and a deteriorating purchasing power of the Syrian pound.
Reading Between the Lines: The ongoing conflict and the dire economic situation in Syria have increased the need to circumvent volatile currency altogether. Programmers should beware that for many Syrians, goods are unavailable on the market at any price, and markets are likely to contract further.
Source: Raseef 22
Date: 25 July 2020
What Does It Say? The U.S. approach to Syria has failed. Al-Assad is likely to remain in power. While aid to Syria is at risk of being co-opted, refusal to operate in Syria is likely to cause more harm than good.
Reading Between the Lines: We have frequently argued that total disengagement from Syria is unlikely to achieve desired policy objectives, and it is almost certain to cement a status quo in which Syrians face increasing misery as a result of the nation’s isolation. Targeted, conditional interventions using relief as leverage for qualified access and non-interference on local levels may provide policymakers the toolkit they need to enter the space without crossing political redlines.
Source: The Century Foundation
Date: 27 July 2020
What Does It Say? The article posits that fundamental ideological differences are the primary impediment to unity between the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD)
Reading Between the Lines: Certainly, important ideological divisions do exist. However, the most fundamental difference between the parties are their external affiliations, vis-a-vis Iraqi counterparts and Turkey.
Source: Acta Fabula
Date: July 2020
What Does It Say? According to one medical official, as many as 25 deaths per day are occurring due to COVID-19 in Damascus city — and a rumored 130 in the wider governorate — as the pandemic silently ravages Syria.
Reading Between the Lines: The Government of Syria has a track record of withholding information. As we have noted, there are multiple likely factors behind this secrecy, including limited capacity to test and treat the virus, reflexive obfuscation, the unwillingness to accept conditional outside assistance, and underlying adverse conditions.
Source: Asharq Al-Awsat
Date: 27 July 2020
What Does It Say? The piece briefly explores the political economy of totalitarian regimes that achieve success in the short term as they need to consolidate power overshadows governance prerogatives.
Reading Between the Lines: Syria’s ruling regimes have achieved a unique equilibrium. By tightening control to a maximal level when threatened and relaxing their grip to allow superficial liberalization when conditions demand it, they have navigated successive and severe threats to their own survival.
Date: 27 July 2020
What Does It Say? Lebanon is in a rapid state of collapse as four of the five pillars that prop up the country and ensure its stability are eroding at a rapid clip.
Reading Between the Lines: Lebanon’s trajectory is worrying indeed. The ruling class at the top of each sectarian totem is fighting to preserve entrenched interests and prolong their rule by resisting much-needed reforms that are a prerequisite to international aid.
Date: 23 July 2020
What Does It Say? Russia has recruited approximately 3,000 Syrians to fight as mercenaries in Libya.
Reading Between the Lines: The deteriorating economic situation in Syria is likely to be a large factor in Syrians’ decision making when going to Libya. Foreign fighters would receive a salary in a foreign currency, as opposed to a Syria-base salary based on the weak Syrian pound or nothing at all.
Source: Syrians for Truth and Justice
Date: 28 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.