Syria Update

14 September 2020

Lavrov touts Russia’s primacy in Damascus visit

In Depth Analysis

On 6-7 September, a high-level Russian delegation traveled to Damascus to meet with Syria’s top civilian leadership, including President Bashar Al-Assad. To the disappointment of opposition figures, many foreign observers, and the Government of Syria’s detractors, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov used the occasion to deliver a message of uncompromising public support for Al-Assad. At a press conference following the meetings, Lavrov stated that there can be “no timeline” for the approval of a new Syrian constitution that is now being negotiated by the Constitutional Committee in Geneva (see: Syria Update 31 August). The statement repudiates — for the time being — any expectation that Russia will use its clout to ensure the 2021 presidential elections in Syria are carried out under the terms of a new consensus constitution. This should not be a surprise. The visit, Lavrov’s first trip to Syria since 2012, is the latest in a string of high-profile demonstrations of Russia’s intention to give Damascus — through an imperfect and often self-sabotaging partner — latitude for sovereign affairs, so long as Russian interests in Syria are respected.

While many assessments of the junket have overstated its potential economic significance, its political value has been largely unnoticed. Several realities are important to understanding what Lavrov’s visit means for Syria and the international response.

Not dollars, but common sense

The nominal purpose of the visit was to foster economic cooperation. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov stated that he expects Russia and Syria will sign a bilateral economic pact during an upcoming exchange in December. The bundle will reportedly include 40 projects in energy development, offshore oil extraction, rehabilitation of power stations, and other projects.

No doubt, the economic file is an important aspect of Russian-Syrian relations, yet many observers overstate the significance of bilateral economic dealings to Russia’s involvement in Syria. On the Government of Syria side, many have clung to a hope that Russia will provide needed rehabilitation or industrial support to jumpstart the moldering Syrian economy. International critics of Russia have seen the meeting as evidence of Moscow’s strategy to consolidate its economic gains in Syria, apparent compensation for its unremitting military and political support to Damascus. Neither adequately explains the latest visit.

In reality, few of the myriad international commercial agreements that have been signed in Syria by Russia (or Iran) have amounted to more than ink on paper. This is likely because the most attractive turnkey projects in Syria have already been doled out. For instance, the Tartous port and factories producing phosphates and fertilizers in Homs are already under Russian management. Gas and oil deals have diminishing appeal in a decarbonizing world, while Syria’s reserves are high-risk and of low output. In either case, further deals will require intensive capital investments and years of preparatory work before services can be delivered or widgets begin rolling off assembly lines. Commercial agreements may serve the patronage interests of the Syrian or Russian ruling elites, but such deals are unlikely to be cash cows for Moscow, and they certainly won’t boost Syria’s sinking bottom line.

The ramifications for the international Syria response are paramount. There is little sign that Russia will allow its grim assessment of Syria’s economic collapse to change its ambition to run its Syria program on the cheap. Borisov noted wryly: “We have to admit that most of the areas rich in oil and gas are outside the control of the Syrian government.” The same is true of vital wheat crops. These two strategic resources are the cornerstones of Syria’s economic and food stability. To date, Russia has taken almost no steps to stave off the worst consequences of these realities. As a result, the responsibility for managing the fallout will likely fall most squarely on the shoulders of the international community.

From Russia, with love

The visit should also be seen as affirmation that among international actors involved in Syria, Russia is in a league of its own, with active outreach on all sides of the multi-dimensional conflict. By now, Russia’s tolerant forbearance of its Government of Syria partners is axiomatic. However, Moscow’s influence over the Constitutional Committee through the so-called “Moscow Platform” is also an important vehicle of influence over the political opposition. Likewise, its partnership with the other Astana powers, Turkey, and Russia, has been fraught and, at times divisive, but it does provide a basis for regional cooperation that is now far larger than Syria alone. Similar conflict dynamics are now playing out in Libya, while future arms deals are likely a far greater boon to Moscow than its potential investments in Syria.

Most importantly, in recent weeks, Russia has gone into overdrive to build bridges with the northeast Syrian Kurds (see: Syria Update 7 September). The Syrian Democratic Council’s (SDC) visit to Moscow earlier this month — ostensibly a sign of Russia’s eagerness to bring the SDC into the Constitutional Committee — likely masks higher-level outreach on the part of the Kremlin, which has long coveted the opportunity to drive a wedge between northeast Syria and the U.S.-led international coalition. No doubt, that job has been made easier by the U.S.’s inability to articulate a coherent post-ISIS objective for its soldiers in Syria. The Self-Administration’s pragmatic leadership will also be troubled by the state of U.S. domestic politics. Syria’s 2021 presidential elections are characterized by significant uncertainty over procedures and specifics, but there is little fundamental mystery: Should he stand for election, Bashar Al-Assad will almost certainly win another term. By contrast, the upcoming U.S. presidential elections are worryingly difficult to predict, and neither major party candidate has expressed a clear strategy for Syria. That the U.S. is liable to ricochet between foreign policy reactionism and arch-realism cannot inspire confidence in Quamishli. This reality will boost Moscow’s efforts to convince the Self-Administration that Russia alone offers the Self-Administration access to Damascus and protection against Turkey.

In some respects, Russia has been the standout victor of the Syia conflict. With a relatively modest military intervention, it has secured a foothold in the Mediterannean, propped up a strategically located regional partner, ginned up foreign business opportunities, and most importantly, it has compelled the international community to approach it as a global power. Lavrov’s visit is a solid reminder of these realities.

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 34_WebMap

1. With Russia at its back, 5th Corps secures major reconciliation deal

Busra Al-Sham, Dar’a governorate: On 9 September, media reports and local sources indicated that representatives of the 5th Corps and the Government of Syria signed a novel agreement to reconcile the status of hundreds of former opposition fighters in southern Syria. The deal was signed by security branch officials from Dar’a and senior commanders of the 5th Corps — including the increasingly active head of the 8th Division, Ahmad Oudeh —  at a meeting brokered by the Russian military command in Busra Al-Sham. The agreement covers former members of Shabab al-Sunnah — now remobilized under the banner of the 5th Corps — and 460 other named military deserters who fled the Government’s ranks and went on to fight for armed opposition factions in southern Syria. The individuals will receive special identification cards from the National Security Bureau, allowing them to travel freely across Government-held areas.

Media reports also indicate that Russia facilitated a separate deal between the Iran-linked National Defense Forces (NDF) and Sweida’s Druze “Men of Dignity” to establish a joint operations room with the 5th Corps, as they pledged to de-escalate tensions in the Dar’a-Sweida borderlands. However, local sources indicate that these reports are false, and no such deal was reached.

Russia plays it cool

Russia clearly has ramped up its efforts to broker stability in southern Syria, following its high-profile diplomatic pushes to stabilize the northeast and its latest assurances to Damascus. The reconciliation deal is not the first of its kind since the fall of the southern armed opposition in 2018, yet it is one of the most expansive, and it may be among the most consequential. In practical effect, the agreement lends greater legitimacy and operational latitude to the Russian-backed 5th Corps. It is also a rare concession from the Government of Syria to Russia’s southern Syria strategy. Its approach has been built on remobilizing former opposition fighters under a unified military hierarchy that is nominally loyal to Damascus but takes its marching orders from Moscow (see: Syria Update 29 June).

The need to conciliate southern Syria more widely will likely remain a Russian priority for the foreseeable future. It should be noted that tensions between the Fifth Corps and Damascus are not an isolated phenomenon. Dar’a-Sweida border areas to the east of Busra Al-Sham have witnessed disputes involving 5th Corps-aligned factions, the Druze community, and Iran-backed NDF factions (see: Syria Update 6 April). However, these tensions have not flared in recent weeks, and contrary to media reports, local sources indicate that no new Dar’a-Sweida deal has been agreed. The lack of a clear framework for cooperation in the area, even at a time of lowered tensions, casts doubt on Russia’s capacity to impose stability on a broad basis in southern Syria over the long term. In the medium term, further flare-ups involving low-level violence, skirmishes, and kidnappings are possible between Dar’a and Sweida. The outbreak of such events will give cause for more overt intervention by external actors. Likewise, further violence across Dar’a itself will also upset Russia’s hopes of quieting unrest between Government-aligned and opposition-sympathetic actors. For instance, on 1 September, locally prominent 5th Corps commander Mohammad Masri was assassinated in Hrak by unknown gunmen. Further assassinations targeting former opposition figures are all but guaranteed, particularly as reconciliation has been seen as a common driver of such attempts in the past.

2.SDF crackdown highlights fundamental conflict-sensitivity concern in NES

Jdid Ekeidat, Deir-ez-Zor governorate: On 9 September, local media reported that the SDF carried out a raid in Jdid Ekeidat, around 20 kilometers southeast of  Deir-ez-Zor city, following a reported attack by ISIS affiliates on an SDF outpost in the town. Following the incidents, the SDF reportedly imposed a curfew in the town. In parallel, SDF questioned and detained administrative officials serving in the Self-Administration’s own bureaucratic apparatus, as well as the heads of the Deir-ez-Zor civil council and Baguz municipality. The local population of Baguz responded to the perceived aggression by taking to the streets to protest against the SDF.

On the horns of a dilemma

On a fundamental level, the SDF faces a simple, binary proposition: come down hard on local security threats — which it often links, rightly or not, to ISIS — or prioritize steps to foster comity and avoid heavy-handed tactics that alienate local communities. As it often does, the SDF has chosen the former route in the latest case. Local sources report a pervasive local belief that the rationale motivating the raid campaign was the desire to show overwhelming force to deter future assassinations or unrest. Worryingly, these events follow a spike in targeted killings, which have been endemic to northeast Syria in recent months (see: Syria Update 17 August). The SDF’s local image as the strong arm of the Kurdish administrative apparatus makes its activities in predominantly Arab and tribal communities in the Euphrates River valley particularly sensitive. Latent tensions between communities in the area and the Self-Administration are already dangerously fraught, due in part to the communities’ reflexive association with ISIS and crossline oil smuggling. Further security incidents in the area are likely, particularly as regional actors across the political spectrum seek to capitalize on the perceived fluidity of the local social and security environment to encourage dissent and build leverage (see: Syria Update 7 September).

Such considerations will remain paramount for aid actors and the international Syria response. As tensions persist, recognizing the local drivers of conflict and sources of stability will be a key conflict-sensitivity objective for programmers. So, too, is the need to build local access independent of the Self-Administration. For a detailed assessment of the conditions prevailing in multiple strategic communities in northeast Syria, we invite you to peruse COAR’s newly published Community Capital Analyses.

3. Bakeries close as wheat shortage looms

Damascus: On 8 September, media sources reported that bakeries in Government of Syria-held areas are closing due to wheat shortages. The nascent bread crisis has produced long lines and wait times exceeding five hours for subsidized bread, and “unprecedented” crowds are reportedly gathering around Damascus bakeries at dawn to secure the staple. Due to production shortfalls in subsidized bread — which sells for 50 SYP ($0.02) — consumers who cannot sacrifice hours of income-generating activity while queuing are being forced to purchase bread from street vendors for 250 SYP ($0.11) per package.

Not with a bang, but a whimper

Throughout 2020, Syria has slid ineluctably toward financial ruin and the immiseration of all but the wealthiest strata of the population. The closure of bakeries and the reported shortage of subsidized bread — worrying phenomena that have been seen only briefly during the worst sieges of the conflict — are troubling indicators that the country may be en route toward bedrock misery. The state’s inability to finance wheat imports has left it with a massive grain gap to fill (see: Syria Update 31 August). U.S. sanctions, financial over-compliance and de-risking by international institutions, border closures, a pandemic-induced slowdown, and the Beirut port explosion are all important factors that explain why this decline has accelerated in recent months. However, the most critical factor behind Syria’s dire circumstances is its wholesale economic collapse, which has been fueled by a decline in foreign currency access and the state’s own shrinking resource base. Currency depreciation has been a major blow. By some measures, Syrians’ purchasing power has never been lower, having halved in the past year alone. As conditions worsen, the Government may be forced to flirt with price rises and cuts to bread size and quality. Over time, it may be compelled to drive more consumers into the private market in hopes of reducing its expenditure on subsidies. In the longer term, keeping the granaries stocked will be a foremost challenge for the state, which faces the Catch-22 that it can afford neither wheat imports nor the appearance of long bread lines.

4. Government raises construction material prices

Various Locations: On 9 September, media sources reported that the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection raised the price of cement by approximately 50 percent, seeking to close the gap with the black market. Accordingly, the fixed Government price for one ton of bulk cement jumped from 47,000 SYP (approx. $22) to 70,000 SYP (approx. $33). On the black market, cement trades between 100,000 and 130,000 SYP (approx. $47-61) per ton. Relatedly, the price of steel reinforcement also jumped from 1.3 million to 1.5 million SYP per ton (approx. $610-704) after the Council of Ministers Economic Committee reportedly ordered an end to its import, falsely claiming that local production would meet domestic needs.

The rising cost of raising a building in Syria

In general, the rising price of vital building materials is an inevitable consequence of inflation. However, the cessation of steel imports in particular likely also reflects Syria’s need to shrink the foreign reserves expended on imports or the desire to boost the interests of well-connected domestic manufacturers — or both. In terms of impact, the rising cost of building materials will be reflected in the sticker price for ordinary Syrians, government institutions, and donor-funded activities. On the consumer level, the increasing prices (both a reflection of inflation and the runaway depreciation of the Syrian pound) will raise home prices and the costs of rehabilitation and repair activities. On the government side, the mounting cost of construction materials will eat into already-meager state budgets, which have continually shrunk in real terms throughout the conflict. As for donor-funded activities, the leap in costs is likewise painful: virtually all rehabilitation and shelter projects, as well as many WASH and other activities, require cement and steel reinforcement. The cost of these goods will be borne by implementers who have receding options for vendors and procurement, as the Government of Syria has moved to tighten restrictions on imports (see: Syria Update 26 May).

5. School textbooks in short supply as the price of paper rises

Various Locations: On 9 September, the Government of Syria-affiliated Al-Watan newspaper reported that 50 percent of students attending grades one to three would not receive textbooks for the 2020-21 academic year. Director of the General Establishment for School Books Zuheir Salman stated that the school book shortage results from the alarming increase in the price of raw materials, including paper, which has jumped to 2.5 million SYP from 45,000 SYP per ton.

Back to school blues

Syria’s financial destitution has had far-reaching effects felt in virtually every corner of the national economy, but its impact in the education sector has frequently been ignored. A shortage of school textbooks is a harbinger of likely gaps in the sector that are expected to follow. It is feasible that needed maintenance, structural rehabilitation, and other non-salary expenses will fall to cuts as Syria’s belt-tightening is driven to extreme lengths. A drop in education quality may have unintended downstream consequences, including by pushing young people into the labor market — or worse — onto the battlefield.

6. Seasonal fires ravage the Syrian coast

Tartous, Lattakia, Homs, Hama, and Idleb governorates: Since the beginning of September, fires have devoured cropland and forests near Masyaf as they have emerged along a coastal ridgeline that straddles Homs and Hama to the east and Lattakia and Tartous to the west. At the time of writing, the Government of Syria civil defense teams and firefighters were still struggling to combat the flames, supported by Russian servicemen from the nearby Russian airbase at Hmeimim. The fires reached opposition-held portions of Idleb, where seven White Helmets teams were dispatched to contain the blazes. In a notable provocation, White Helmets head Raed al-Saleh issued a public statement describing the situation as a “state of emergency” and offering to support the Government of Syria civil defense. Additionally, al-Saleh stated that the White Helmets could not access frontline areas affected by the fire for the presence of unexploded ordnance and landmines, which are at risk of spontaneous detonation due to the extreme heat generated by the blazes.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire?

Seasonal fires are nothing new in Syria, yet the risks presented by fire season have grown due to the conflict. Even in more prosperous years before the conflict, Damascus often could not extinguish aggressive blazes, which led Turkey to undertake firefighting interventions — coordinated with Damascus — to contain the fires creeping toward its southern border. The appetite for such cooperation has waned. In the same spirit, the White Helmets’ offer to aid Damascus is almost certainly a non-starter, given that Damascus and Moscow have designated the organization a terrorist entity. The Government of Syria did not respond to the White Helmets’ request, and is unlikely to do so, even if the blazes continue to rage. The loss of further cropland and timber, and the destruction of infrastructure and homes, will hit affected communities hard. From a political perspective, the fires put the state’s incapacity on full display. For comparison, the Lebanese state’s inability to respond to sweeping forest fires in October 2019 generated a groundswell of popular rage that lowered the flashpoint for a popular uprising, triggered by a small, but symbolically meaningful, tax, only days later. There are limits to the toleration of popular dissent in Syria, yet the possibility for popular rage remains. Likewise, the danger posed by unexploded ordnance will remain a key challenge long after the guns fall silent in Syria.

7. Leak: 200-plus UN staff in Syria test positive for COVID-19

Damascus: On 7 September, Reuters published a leaked internal UN memo stating that more than 200 UN staff in Syria have tested positive for COVID-19 amid an alarming rise in cases. The disclosure adds further proof to the accumulating evidence that Syria’s coronavirus infections are significantly more widespread than official figures indicate. Of the staff who tested positive, three were medically evacuated, and some were hospitalized.

Syria’s worst-kept secret

It is an open secret that the Government of Syria has downplayed the number of COVID-19 cases in areas of its control. Leaks such as the UN memo give some indication of the extent that publicly released COVID-19 figures — 3,540 cases in Government-held areas as of writing — represent an incomplete sampling that is overly optimistic. Multiple areas of specific concern for dealing with the virus are now apparent, including healthcare workers, who are particularly vulnerable due to lax protocols, limited testing, and a lack of protective gear. Of note, the risks do not end at lines of control. Northwest Syria has now reported its first fatality among a healthcare worker — at Al-Bab hospital. In the northeast, too, 12 health facilities reportedly suspended operations due to COVID-19 infections among healthcare workers. Aid actors must be prepared for the long haul, as COVID-19 will likely remain a challenge in Syria long after effective treatments, vaccines, or other remedies become available elsewhere. From a programmatic perspective, it is also critical to note that because of Syria’s limited health infrastructure, many individuals of means are turning to private or dual-use practices or self-funded ventures, including by paying for oxygen tanks to be brought in from abroad.

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.

Syria Still Matters: Charting a Strategic Approach to Syria Policy

What Does it Say? The paper argues that Syria’s economic and social fragility give the U.S. greater leverage in Syria than at any point since the conflict’s trajectory tipped decisively in favor of the Government of Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: As with most assessments of Syria produced in Washington, the report calls for the U.S. to maintain its troop presence in Syria to resolve the conflict “responsibly.” These assessments are increasingly out of register with on-the-ground realities. The U.S. has failed to articulate much beyond a single, desired outcome of Syria: the ouster of Al-Assad. In the absence of a coherent strategy — at the likely cost of greater military involvement and coercive diplomacy — no such objective is achievable, to say nothing of more ambitious aims such as ousting Iran from Syria. Syria does, indeed, still matter, but not for the reasons outlined in this report.

Source: Middle East Institute

Language: English

Date: 10 September 2020

Charity founded by Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf has Facebook page removed

What Does it Say? The Facebook page of Al Bustan Foundation has been removed, under uncertain circumstances. In parallel, Bashar and Asma Al-Assad have reportedly taken over the charity’s former buildings in Dar’a and repurposed them for a new foundation called Al-Areen.

Reading Between the Lines: The removal is a coup de grace for Rami Makhlouf, and they will fuel speculation of Asma Al-Assad’s ascendance.

Source: Al Arabiya

Language: English

Date: 9 September 2020

Senior HTS cleric: We are not like ISIS, and we seek to improve our image to Western countries

What Does it Say? Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) has actively moved to improve its image in the West, the latest in a series of brand overhauls by the group. 

Reading Between the Lines: Compliance around HTS is among the foremost challenges facing the northwest Syria response, yet it remains an open question whether the group’s overtures reflect a real willingness to de-radicalize. Pragmatic reasons to do so exist, including self-preservation and the pressure applied by Russia and the West.

Source: Nedaa

Language: Arabic

Date: 4 September 2020

More than 200,000 Passports Issued Annually in Syria

What Does it Say? The Government of Syria is collecting significant revenue from passport renewal services. A Syrian passport renewal costs approximately $300 — and nearly $800 for expedited service — for Syrians living abroad, and between 12,000-30,000 SYP (approx. $20-60) for those inside Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: The prices for Syria passports abroad are exorbitant, and they highlight that the Government of Syria, like other actors throughout the conflict, has resorted to desperate extremes to expand its resource base.

Source: The Syria Report

Language: English

Date: 9 September 2020

The Activity of The Rebel Organizations In Syria And Iraq During August 2020

What Does it Say? ISIS and other non-state armed actors carried out 200 operations over August in Iraq and Syria. While this count was fewer than in July, the pace of activities has stepped up.

Reading Between the Lines: Since its defeat, ISIS is no longer the formidable power it once was. However, it appears to be impressing its relevance through shrewd targeting by assassinating important dignitaries such as Hisham Muhammad in Iraq. If past is prologue, there is reason to suspect activities can cross the porous Iraq-Syria border with ease.

Source: Jusoor

Language: Arabic

Date: 9 September 2020

Redevelopment areas in Syria are gateway to dispossessing property at low prices

What Does it Say? Hawkish buyers are swooping in to buy real estate at rock-bottom prices from desperate owners across Syria. Many such properties are located in zones earmarked for redevelopment, particularly under the infamous Law no. 10. 

Reading Between the Lines: Not only are vulnerable citizens being taken advantage of, but the application of Law no. 10 has major HLP implications that will likely prevent IDPs and refugees from returning.

Source: Al Hal

Language: Arabic

Date: 9 September 2020

Russian-Iranian Tensions in Deir al-Zour

What Does it Say? A drawdown of U.S. troops in eastern Syria will open the floodgates to Russia and Iran, igniting a powder keg of tensions as the two vie for resources and local influence.

Reading Between the Lines: Defense officials time and again overestimate U.S. leverage in Syria and the intensity of the Iran-Russia rivalry. Such assessments are calibrated to reaffirm a perpetual U.S. military deployment, rather than progress toward resolving the Syria conflict.

Source: The Washington Institute

Language: English

Date: 4 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.