7 September 2020
Clawing back influence in the northeast, Russia brokers SDC-People’s Will Party agreement
In Depth Analysis
On 31 August, media sources reported that a delegation of top Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) officials visiting Moscow signed a memorandum of understanding with the People’s Will Party, a marginal Syrian opposition faction supported by Russia. The statement calls “for joint action to ensure the participation of the Syrian Democratic Council in the Syrian Constitutional Committee” process. The deal may indeed be what it seems: a tenuous first step on the path leading to northeast Syria’s limited participation in the constitutional process. However, the agreement is non-binding, and there is no clear means to bring the Self-Administration into the talks in Geneva. In that sense, the process that led to the Moscow meeting is more likely an indicator of Russia’s continued eagerness to respond to U.S. provocations in the northeast (see: Syria Update 17 August) and build its own power base by exploiting the fissures that exist within the Self-Administration itself.
What is the People’s Will Party?
The People’s Will Party is led by Qadri Jamil, a Syrian Kurdish and the former minister of internal trade and consumer protection. Following the onset of the conflict, the party openly aligned with the opposition and subsequently relocated to Moscow. Crucially, the party sits under the aegis of the formal Syrian opposition and is closely associated with the so-called “Moscow platform,” furnishing Russia a direct channel of influence within the opposition bloc in the Constitutional Committee (see: Syria Constitutional Committee: Preliminary Background Note).
Doubling down on decentralization
The non-binding agreement between the SDC and the People’s Will Party expresses top-level policy positions regarding the constitution of a “new Syria.” In large part, the standpoints mirror those espoused by the Self-Administration. These include centralizing economic, defense, and foreign policy, the primacy of the Syrian Arab Army as the primary nation’s military power, and an ambiguous appeal for decentralized regional administration. Of note, the document reaffirms the Self-Administration’s willingness to distribute Syria’s resource wealth nationally. However, given that the Self-Administration dominates Syria’s national oil and wheat fields, this overture is an implicit threat: without concessions from Damascus and the Turkish-backed opposition, the Self-Administration will not loosen its grip over Syria’s two most important resources.
Although the Moscow meetings were cloaked in the mantle of Syria’s constitutional process, the outcome was lacking in clarity or hard commitments. SDC Vice President Hikmat Habib stated that the “[Russian] Foreign Ministry confirmed that it will support the participation of northeast Syria in the peace process during the upcoming phase — whether on the level of the Syrian Democratic Council or the Self-Administration. They also confirmed that they will liaise with the UN envoy Geir Pedersen directly.” Habib added: “what we understood from the Russian foreign ministry is that they have a recognition that it is not possible to achieve a political solution in Syria without the participation of all Syrians, in particular, the Syrian Democratic Council and the Self-Administration.”
These statements are deliberately vague, a possible consequence of the narrow scope of the promises made, or the limitations inherent in the format of the Constitutional Committee. The Self-Administration has no seat at the table, and there is little room for its integration into the process now (see: Syria Update 31 August). The absence of northeast Syria in the Constitutional Committee is the most significant direct challenge to its legitimacy. Russia may indeed agitate to bring northeast Syria (or its implicit interests) to the table in Geneva as a show of good faith. Doing so via the People’s Will Party is theoretically possible. However, opening this channel would force the Self-Administration into reliance upon the continued goodwill of Russia, and it would fall far short of securing northeast Syria a voice that is equal to its military prowess and resource wealth.
A stalking horse for Russian rapprochement
In actual fact, the memorandum of understanding is likely a smokescreen for the headier task of cultivating Russian-Syrian ties in northeast Syria. Russia’s successful facilitation of the Moscow meetings — even if they lead to a dead-end — can be seen as an assertion of Moscow’s aspiration to remain a key power broker in Syria, particularly in the northeast, where its physical foothold has expanded dramatically since the drawdown of U.S. troops in late 2019. In that respect, the deal can be seen as a rejoinder to the recent U.S. energy deal, widely understood as a signal of America’s long-term commitment and a threat to Damascus and Moscow. The deal may also be a response to Kurdish criticism that Damascus did not approach negotiations with the Self-Administration seriously, while Russia stands accused of failing to mediate that process, contributing to its collapse.
Perhaps most importantly, the deal casts light on the struggle for power within the Self-Administration itself. Although the Self-Administration is often seen as ideologically uniform, internal rifts do exist. One of the most important divisions in the northeast has opened over the strategic question of whether to pursue long-term stability through rapprochement with Russia — a fair-weather partner, but a pragmatic and consistent presence in Syria — or to continue to partner with the international coalition led by the U.S. — a more powerful backer, but mercurial and inconsistent. The horse-trading that brought top-level SDC leadership to Moscow is an indication that the two wings of the Self-Administration remain at odds, while outside developments are intensifying the tensions.
Whole of Syria Review
1. New armed group claims deadly attack as Russia and Turkey insist that ceasefire holds
Idleb governorate: On 28 August, media reports indicated that a car bomb targeted a Turkish military base in Salet al-Zuhour, close to the M4 Highway in western Idleb governorate. The attack was later claimed by a new armed group calling itself the Ansar Abou Bakr Al-Sadiq Company. In a statement, the group alleged that the attack caused several fatalities, including Turkish “NATO” soldiers and local armed combatants guarding the base. In parallel, on 2 September Moscow announced that Turkish and Russian soldiers engaged in joint military exercises near Saraqeb for the first time, and it reasserted their intent to secure the M4 by continuing to conduct joint patrols and maintain the current ceasefire. Despite these operations aimed at de-escalating existing tensions between the numerous conflict actors in the area, unidentified armed groups targeted Russian soldiers on these patrols on several occasions, albeit without causing any substantial damage.
Ceasefire? What ceasefire?
The purported formation of the Ansar Abou Bakr Al-Sadiq Company follows in the footsteps of the many ad-hoc armed groups of dubious provenance that have emerged in northwest Syria since the beginning of the conflict. Media reports indicate that some members of the group were previously associated with Al-Qaeda-linked Hurras Al-Din. Although the group’s founding statement asserted its independence, the language used was heavy with religious allusions. The group also specifically referenced NATO, a nod at Turkey’s Western alliances. That may suggest a strategic direction for the group that sets it at odds with Turkey, which has been accused by armed opposition factions of accommodating Government of Syria and Russian military advances into the northwest. At the same time, Turkey has struggled to fulfill its obligations and live up to Russia’s demand that it utilize the robust Turkish military presence in the northwest and its direct ties to various local armed groups to eliminate “terrorist” factions. Hurras Al-Din is widely understood as one of the focal points of that pressure, and the creation of a new, ad-hoc armed group determined to resist Turkish pressure is a sign that such efforts will not go unchallenged.
Meanwhile, Russia’s presence in northwest Syria also continues to be met with resistance from local armed groups. Small-scale attacks against Russian patrols alongside Turkish soldiers appear to be a message of resistance to the joint agreement between Ankara and Moscow, which is intended to keep the ongoing clashes, airstrikes, and shelling within tolerable limits that will not threaten the current ceasefire. With the announcement of joint military exercises on 2 September, both Turkey and Russia seem determined to continue their operations in Idleb governorate despite the attacks. Until these actors change their implicit position vis-a-vis the ceasefire agreement, major military operations remain unlikely. However, the longer unstable conditions persist, the more likely it is that Turkey will be hard-pressed to deal with radical armed groups and other spoilers. This may intensify local clashes and create further splinter groups, with significant potential for security and operational challenges to the local aid environment.
2. Government of Syria nets $1.4m from returnees in August
Various Locations: On 30 August, local media reported that during the month of August, Syrians returning from abroad injected $1.4 million hard cash into the Syrian Central Bank, in accordance with new crossing regulations announced the previous month. The rules require returning Syrians to exchange $100 or its equivalent in select global currencies for Syrian lira at the border. The law was promulgated on 7 July by Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, and it stipulates that the exchange will be transacted at the official bank rate of 1,250 SYP/USD (see: Syria Update 13 July). At the time of writing, the exchange rate hovers around 2,180 SYP/USD. Reportedly, Director of Immigration and Passports Hadi Numair stated that individuals who do not have the requisite hard currency upon reaching a crossing are required to call on relatives in Syria to provide the needed cash. Returnees under the age of 18 are exempt from this law.
No cash? Big problems
The cash exchange scheme has forced returnees to bail out the Central Bank of Syria, which has hemorrhaged foreign currency reserves as it resorts to increasingly complex schemes to secure foreign capital (see: Syria Update 26 May). Most recently, the Government of Syria levied a $200 surcharge on returnees, nominally to cover the cost of a test for COVID-19 and hotel accommodation (see: Syria Update 3 August). The cash exchange scheme is especially problematic because it forces returnees to sell foreign currency at a significantly below-market rate, and the differential is likely to widen with ongoing economic volatility. In parallel, returnees to Syria are becoming more desperate financially. According to the latest data from the UN and local implementing partners, 90 percent of returnees cite economic conditions as a “very important” factor in their return, a problem that is likely to grow. With the precipitous economic decline of neighboring states setting in, Syrians who work as laborers will be among the first to feel the squeeze of contractions in the regional labor market, which has been dampened by COVID-19 restrictions, depressed oil prices, and soft demand in consumer markets. In parallel, the devastating Beirut blast in August destroyed a considerable amount of low-income housing in the Lebanese capital, and it will accelerate the shrinking of the labor market — both will affect Syrians in the country. However, there is some hope that relief work and aid can stabilize otherwise vulnerable Syrian families and workers in Lebanon.
Despite the ire caused by the cash exchange program among returnees, including those who have been stranded at Syria’s borders for want of cash, the Government of Syria is unlikely to relax the exchange requirement. The $1.4 million raised by the program is a relatively small sum in the scheme of a state budget, yet the desperate central government may well find it worth the provocation.
3. National Army factions impose new tax on wheat and barley
Tell Abiad and Ras al-Ain: On 1 September, a circular published by the General Economic Office of the Turkish-backed Second Brigade stated that a tax of $10 per ton would be levied on wheat and barley sold from Tell Abiad and Ras al-Ain. Local sources indicate the announcement was unanticipated, and is likely the result of various pro-Turkish National Army factions coordinating on the marketing of strategic grain crops in the areas of northeast Syria that they have controlled since October 2019. According to the local sources, the fees are to be paid for by the grain buyers rather than farmers or landowners. Relatedly, in June, a media report stated that the National Army factions have been confiscating wheat and barley from both Tell Abiad and Ras al-Ain and transporting the crops by truck to Turkey.
Throughout the conflict, taxes and levies have been one of the main ways armed actors have controlled the movement and distribution of strategic resources, such as wheat and barley. However, revenue-generation is also a key driver for doing so. While it is too early to confirm the motivation or precise downstream consequences of the reported grain tax, it is likely that the move is meant to improve the bottom line of the various factions and their corresponding civil authorities. All such actors will likely need to achieve a greater margin of self-reliance as Turkey passes through continuing economic straits, thus creating domestic pressure for the operations it supports in Syria to become lighter, fiscally. Holistically, the loss of vital cropland in northeast Syria was one of the most important consequences of the Peace Spring offensive, on top of the complications caused by displacement and attendant HLP concerns for IDPs driven into Self-Administration territory. Increasing normalization of trade and transit between Peace Spring areas and Turkey are likely to continue at pace, particularly if Turkey is able to reap a wheat windfall by doing so.
4. Aleppo Chamber of Commerce calls for removal of import subsidies
Aleppo: On 1 September, Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper, an outlet close to the Government of Syria, reported that the Aleppo Chamber of Industry had provided the Government of Syria with a list of trade and industrial demands, the most notable of which was the complete cessation of import subsidies funded through the Central Bank of Syria. The reason behind the appeal, it claimed, was that financing imports had only exacerbated smuggling activities, with the greatest benefits accruing to the corrupt and well-connected. Additionally, the groups also called for a “serious” campaign to root out corruption in state and trade institutions, a targeted effort to combat smuggling, and greater support for local production.
Patronage and subsidies
The call to end import subsidies is provocative, though not entirely unprecedented, given Syria’s long, slow retreat from support for imported goods. However, there are several important considerations that likely color the decision. Firstly, revoking import subsidies as stated would batter Syria’s heavily import-reliant food economy, with the greatest impact felt by the 90 percent of Syrians who are now impoverished. To this end, on 3 September, media sources stated that the Government of Syria is having greater difficulty securing necessary food imports, while WFP calculates that 9.3 million Syrians are currently food insecure. Secondly, Al-Watan is adjacent to the Government of Syria, lending it a status that approaches that of state media. As such, the outlet is often a testing ground for potentially controversial policy decisions, suggesting that such a plan may already be on the radar of state officials, as well as self-interested Aleppo industrialists. Thirdly, it is possible that the Government of Syria seeks to create a new media narrative casting reduced or eliminated food import structures as part of a broader, deliberate strategy to boost local production and foster industrial recovery and associated livelihood opportunities. Certainly, the rehabilitation of Aleppo, the industrial dynamo of pre-conflict Syria, will be important to the nation’s eventual economic recovery. However, current conditions suggest the worrying possibility that in the face of economic collapse, Syria may see neither import subsidies nor an industrial rebound, and aid dependence is likely to deepen over time as a result.
5. Israeli airstrikes target Dar’a and Homs as Iran steps up its defense
Rural Damascus, Homs, and Dar’a governorates: On 31 August, media sources reported likely Israeli airstrikes,targeting various military targets in southern Syria. Local sources indicated that the targets were located predominantly in northern and central areas of Dar’a governorate, and included Mahajjeh Hill, the 175th Regiment, and an airfield in the outskirts of Izra’ city, as well as the Qarfa Battalion near the M5 highway, and the Kisweh military airbase south of Damascus city. The attacks reportedly resulted in the death of multiple civilians, Syrian Arab Army personnel, and Iran-backed combatants. Two days later, on 2 September, Syrian state media reported that air defense systems at the T-4 Airbase in eastern rural Homs were activated to counter enemy fire. There are conflicting accounts of the damage caused. Some reports suggest that the fallout of the T-4 attack was limited to material damage, while others indicate that 16 Iraqi fighters supported by Iran were killed in further strikes in southern Deir-ez-Zor.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
As is usual, Israeli officials did not publicly claim responsibility for the attacks. However, the incidents follow the well-worn pattern of Israeli airstrikes in Syria, seemingly reaffirming Israel’s strategy of seeking to deny Iran-linked ground forces the opportunity to consolidate their presence in southern Syria, especially in close proximity to Israel’s northern borders. Of particular note, the latest attacks follow closely after unconfirmed media reports that Iranian air defense batteries had been deployed in southern Syria. If true, this confirms that an ambiguous Iranian-Syrian air defense agreement that surfaced in July has been put into action, making these strikes an early rebuttal to Iran’s bid to limit the damaging impact of Israel’s unchecked aerial access to Syria (see: Syria Update 20 July). If this is correct, the events are a firm indicator of the security dilemma facing the parties in their escalating shadow war in Syria.
There is also a geopolitical dimension to the strikes. The attacks occurred while French President Emmanuel Macron was on a high-profile junket involving stops in Lebanon and Iraq, both of which are contexts in which French — and Iranian — influence are bound up with overall stabilization objectives and progress toward an end of the conflict in Syria. While the timing is probably coincidental, it may nonetheless be perceived as a shot across the bow, signaling to antagonists and international partners that Israel will continue to pursue its strategy against Iran. Crucially, the military action also took place amid continuing political instability in Israel as embattled PM Benjamin Netanyahu faced ongoing demonstrations. Despite Israel’s recent peace deal with the UAE and the Netanyahu administration’s clear public attempts to reach out to other Arab states (in particular over shared antagonism toward Iran), political tensions persist, making “defensive” military intervention in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria a boon to Netanyahu’s attempts to rehabilitate his domestic image.
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? Healthcare workers are facing serious shortages in personal protective gear while responding to the COIVD-19 pandemic in Syria, while official statistics are widely understood as downplaying the breadth of the outbreak.
Reading Between the Lines: A failing Syrian economy is likely a contributing factor to the dearth in equipment, while the lack of a coherent strategy — or the means to effectively implement it — is likely a significant factor in the inability to manage the outbreak.
Source: Human Rights Watch
Date: 2 September 2020
What Does It Say? By tracking the use of explosive munitions acros conflict theaters, the report estimates that at a minimum, some 250,000 explosive munitions were used in Syria between 2013 and 2019. Of those munitions, an estimated 24,000 to 73,000 failed to detonate, and continue to pose a threat.
Reading Between the Lines: The report paints a grim picture of the scope of post-conflict de-mining in Syria. It took four years to clear around 11,000 explosives in Iraq, suggesting that a process of a similar scale in Syria may take decades.
Source: The Carter Center
Date: No Date
What Does It Say? The Syrian economy is rapidly collapsing. While prices have multiplied by 40 to 50 times their pre-conflict levels, salaries have scarcely doubled.
Reading Between the Lines: Individual purchasing power is rapidly diminishing, which will continue to lead Syrians to hunger, food insecurity, and aid dependence.
Source: Al Watan
Date: 1 September 2020
What Does It Say? The Bedouin lifestyle in Syria has been eroded over time by deliberate central planning and as a natural result of modernization and changing patterns of land tenure, trade, and agriculture. Now, the civil war is threatening to wipe out the few remaining Bedouin communities.
Reading Between the Lines: The authors are among the most-respected academic authorities on Syria’s Bedouin. They call attention to the way the war in Syria is eradicating many forms of cultural heritage, many of which will likely never return.
Source: Al Jazeera
Date: 30 August 2020
What Does It Say? U.S. and Russian forces have clashed in Syria’s northeastern provinces with both nations vying for dominance in the region.
Reading Between the Lines: While there is always the potential risk of escalation with any confrontation, these clashes will likely persist, so long as the conflict in Syria does. Although the parties have differing (if ill-defined) objectives, their basic commitment to edge out the other is consistent.
Source: Institute for the Study of War
Date: 26 August 2020
What Does It Say? Russia has enjoyed significantly more military and diplomatic success in Syria than the U.S., in part by winning a seat at the table with a multitude of actors on various sides of the conflict.
Reading Between the Lines: Russia’s success in Syria is a result of its willingness to engage a broad swathe of actors as well as its unified purpose. One key impediment to the U.S. approach to Syria is its inter-agency rivalies. For instance, the Pentagon backs the Self-Administration, while the State Department backs Turkey.
Source: The Jerusalem Post
Date: 1 September 2020
What Does It Say? The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has reportedly taken control of the most important trans-Euphrates River smuggling routes in its areas of influence in Deir-ez-Zor.
Reading Between the Lines: Control over the routes translates to more leverage, although financial interests are also crucial as Iran passes through a period of fiscal austerity.
Source: Asharq Al-Awsat
Date: 2 September 2020
What Does It Say? The Government of Syria forces continued to violate the ceasefire in Idleb, while Turkey and Russia have been working to extend the agreement.
Reading Between the Lines: Certainly, there are limitations to Russia’s capacity to force the Government of Syria to take (or refrain from taking) certain actions. However, it is also increasingly evident that all major players in northwest Syria are willing to tolerate low-level violations despite the pretense of commitment to the ceasefire.
Source: Enab Baladi
Date: 2 September 2020
What Does It Say? Murid Sakhr Al-Attasi has been appointed as the new CEO of Syriatel, the nation’s premier telecoms firm. Syriatel still owes the state billions in Syrian lira under the terms of an investigation into tax improprieties under the former leadership of Rami Makhlouf.
Reading Between the Lines: The appointment is a firm signal that Syrian authorities are turning the page on Makhlouf, whose business empire has been slowly, but steadily, dismantled in recent months as he has publicly fallen out with the Al-Assad regime.
Source: Al Iqtisadi
Date: 3 September 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.