Syria Update

28 September 2020
Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 36_v03_Page_01
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PYD-KNC peace talks: Whither peace in Syria’s northeast?

In Depth Analysis

Following nearly a year of glacial progress, drawn out unity talks between two rival Syrian Kurdish political parties have reportedly reached an advanced stage in recent weeks, potentially paving the way for the implementation of a power-sharing framework that would break the one-party monopoly on political and military power in northeast Syria. Shepherded by the U.S. and backed strongly by France, the talks aim to foster rapprochement between the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political arm of the YPG, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a member of the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition. On 20 September, U.S. envoy James Jeffrey visited northeast Syria amid continuing face-to-face meetings between the parties. Jeffrey emphasized the Trump administration’s support for the Kurdish union, to which the PYD has, in principle, assented. Although the progress of the negotiations has attracted considerable attention among analysts and programmers focusing on northeast Syria, an actual agreement between the two most heavily charged poles of Kurdish political power in Syria remains far off, and earnest power-sharing east of the Euphrates River is more remote still.

Déjà vu, or something new?

The two Kurdish parties have a highly acrimonious history. The KNC is a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and is functionally tied to Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in northern Iraq. For years the KNC has accused the YPG of authoritarianism, being too close to the Al-Assad regime, and repressing opposition political activity, silencing critics, and even assassinating KNC members. Meanwhile, the PYD has long accused the KNC of being too close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey’s Syrian rebel proxies, whom many Kurds in northeast Syria consider violent extremists. In the past, KNC offices in Self-Administration areas have been shuttered, and its officials have been exiled, although restrictions on its political activities have been relaxed as talks have progressed (see: Syria Update 11 May).

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 36_v03_Page_01
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Key sticking points in the negotiations give some sense of the wide gap between the parties. They include the status of “disappeared” KNC members; the expulsion of foreign PKK commanders — a firm KNC demand shared by Turkey; depoliticization of educational curriculum; and finally, whether the PYD will allow the entry of Rojava Peshmerga forces to counterbalance the influence of the YPG. Some progress has been made. In spite of its initial refusal, the PYD has reportedly acquiesced to strong U.S. pressure and has agreed in principle to implement the 2014 Duhok agreement — an unenforced understanding that is cited by the KNC as the basis of future reconciliation — in which each party would receive 40 percent of seats of a political executive body, with the remaining 20 percent split between allied parties on either side (see: Syria Update 22 June).

12-dimensional chess

The talks are not occurring in a vacuum. This is, after all, the twilight phase of the long Syria conflict, and local and geopolitical pressures continue to exert force on the process. Locally, splits have emerged within the PYD itself (see: Syria Update 7 September). One faction, led by Mazloum Abdi, is closer to the U.S. position and is reportedly pushing to isolate PKK-affiliated figures to safeguard the reconciliation process. Another wing, led by former PYD leader Salih Muslim and Aldar Khalil, is reportedly skeptical of the process, and cautions against making unforced concessions to Turkey.

Meanwhile, the KNC itself has been isolated within the Syrian opposition, and it has raised increasingly pointed criticism over the opposition’s reluctance to call out abuses by the Turkish army and its allied Syrian factions in Afrin or northeast Syria. For its part, the SNC has condemned the unity talks. In a clear shot across the bow, it ejected KNC member Hewas Egid from the High Negotiations Committee that represents the Syrian opposition in Geneva.

Cross-border concerns also remain. Self-Administration areas are highly reliant upon commercial and humanitarian access negotiated via Iraqi Kurdistan, a reality that may curb the PYD’s appetite for hard negotiating tactics. As talks advance, Russia and Turkey have also entered the frame. On 23 September, Russian forces withdrew from Tal Tamer, a major transit hub and an outpost that serves as a buffer between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Turkish Peace Spring area in northern Al-Hasakeh governorate. Almost immediately, the move prompted clashes between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and the SDF. Russia cited a lack of cooperation on the part of the SDF as justification for its removal, although the move can be seen as a pressure tactic. Moscow reportedly proposed withdrawing altogether from areas east of the Euphrates, a maneuver that would almost certainly furnish Turkey an opportunity to launch an offensive against the SDF (see: ‘Land Swaps’: Russian-Turkish Territorial Exchanges in Northern Syria). Russian forces ultimately returned to the area, with some local reports attributing this turnaround to the SDF’s agreeing to share oil with Government of Syria-controlled areas more liberally.

Minority rule

The success or failure of the Kurdish unity talks is an important litmus test of the Kurdish polity’s capacity to play politics along multiple axes simultaneously. Capitalizing on what remains of U.S. support will be an imperative for the Self-Administration’s long-term stability. Doing so without antagonizing Turkey is another matter altogether, particularly given that many in northeast Syria view Damascus as the only safe harbor for northeast Syria’s Kurds. If the PYD succeeds in building a bridge to Damascus, it will likely do so with Russia’s assistance, although Moscow appears more than willing to use the threat of Turkish military assault as a wedge against the Kurds (see: Syria Update 7 September).

In the meantime, it is imperative that the international Syria response view the Kurdish unity talks at proper scale. A PYD-KNC detente would assuage complaints of single-party authoritarianism against the PYD, but it would not alter the fundamental reality that Kurdish political dominance in northeast Syria is minority rule. The region’s predominantly Arab tribal population continues to complain of institutionalized discrimination, displacement, forcible conscription, and arbitrary arrest and detention. An institutionalized power-sharing framework with the KNC would likely produce more conciliatory practices toward the Arab population, yet the prospective deal has already met with tepid disinterest from the spokesmen of two key Arab tribes in northeast Syria.

However, there are some who stake their hopes for humanitarian access and the stability that is needed for development programming on a transformative Kurdish unity deal. They would be wise to temper their expectations. Yet hope is not lost. Programmatic access has persisted despite the area’s inherent political instability. Although border crossings have been shuttered at inopportune moments, access persists, not least because shared economic interests favor open trade between Turkey and northern Iraq, a vital corridor to send Turkish exports to northeast Syria (see: Infographic: Northeast Syria Trade Dynamics). For the time being, talks between the PYD and KNC will likely continue. Should it succeed, such a deal may indeed bring about a significant change to the political character of northeast Syria. Until then, the talks are likely to remain in a familiar holding pattern: business as usual while all parties play for more time.

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 36_WebMap

1. Restrictions pinch as bread and fuel crises continue

Various Locations: Syria’s twin bread and fuel crises continue to rage, as fuel queues stretch miles long and Syrians linger in bread lines for hours (see: Syria Update 21 September). In some cases, bakeries are reportedly refusing to sell bread at the subsidized rate of 50 SYP, thus increasing the financial pressure on Syrian consumers who are increasingly being pushed into the private bread market as state support withers. Some bakeries now charge as much as 800 SYP per pack. Local sources note that as of this writing, individuals and families of two are permitted to buy one stack consisting of seven loaves of bread. Families of three or four are entitled to two stacks, while a family of five to six may purchase three packages. At market prices, the largest Syrian families will expend much of a full day’s public sector salary (between 2,167 SYP and 3,636 SYP, based on a 22-day working month) on bread alone. Meanwhile, queues at fueling stations also last for hours as Syria continues to stare down an acute fuel shortage. Local sources reported that a private car may fill up every seven days, public modes of transport, such as taxis and buses, can fill up once every four days, and motorcycles once every seven days.

Bread and fuel crunch to continue

The bread shortage is a matter of the foremost importance to Syria’s stability and the population’s basic food needs. As we have repeatedly noted, Syria’s inability to import soft wheat for milling has stemmed in large part from the state’s seemingly intractable fiscal challenges, the bite of sanctions, and the banking crisis in Lebanon. The inability to capture domestic hard wheat production has also factored into the crisis. In practical terms, wheat shortages will lead to bread shortages. Bread shortages will lead to hunger, given that bread is a staple food in Syria. In practical effect, for the foreseeable future, Syrians will be forced to dedicate increasing amounts of time and money to put bread on the table. There will be limited capacity to put anything else with it.

In contrast, Syrian authorities have promised that relief to the fuel shortage will come with the completion of maintenance at the Banias Refinery in early October. Some improvement to the fuel crisis can be expected if the refinery comes back online, as stated. As of this writing, there is no definitive sign that the supply-side challenges that are believed to lie behind the acute fuel crisis have resolved. A reduction in imports due to sanctions and a possible kink in Iran oil supply line remain unchanged. However, there are reports that Russian pressure on the SDF has produced a deal to send more of northeast Syria’s oil to Government-held areas. This may bring some relief, but its sustainability will remain suspect.

With winter fast approaching, a shortage in Syria’s most critical staple food and the oil products needed for heating and transport will spell disaster for the immiserated Syrian population. Programmers should approach winterization and food sector responses accordingly. In the long term, a calibrated reduction in sanctions combined with a full-throated commitment to humanitarian aid will likely be necessary to support the Syrian populace where Damascus itself cannot.

2. Lavrov declares armed opposition is ‘over’

Moscow: In a 21 September interview with Saudi television channel Al-Arabiya, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared that the “military confrontation between the Government and the opposition is over,” adding that there was “no need” for the Syrian Government to launch a full-out military campaign in Idleb, and that a Russian-Turkish deal governing the area remains in place (see: Syria Update 9 March). Lavrov affirmed that Russia would resume its patrols of the strategic M4 highway alongside Turkey, after having suspended its participation in August. Lavrov also reserved for Moscow the right to target Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and “terrorist positions and hotbeds.” However, it is notable that in the interview, Lavrov repeatedly drew a distinction between “terrorists” and “moderate opposition” groups, the latter of which he defined as those willing to countenance negotiations with Damascus.

He’s not wrong, but…

Lavrov’s statements regarding the end of the armed opposition’s challenge to Damascus are in a sense both old and new. Arguably, the Syrian armed opposition has not had the capacity to act independently from the wishes of its foreign backers since Turkish-backed fighters withdrew from the critical Aleppo city axis in 2016 to fight a marginal battle in the ISIS-held town of Al Bab. (The move was driven by Turkey’s interest in capturing the area before the Kurdish-led SDF.) The Government’s capture of Aleppo was followed by other opposition withdrawals from Dar’a, Eastern Ghouta, swathes of Idleb, northern Hama and Homs. At each juncture the Turkish-backed “Syrian National Army” (and even groups not directly backed by Turkey, such as HTS) consistently failed to open military fronts to spread Government forces thin, allowing Damascus to concentrate on capturing each piece of rebel territory one-by-one.

It is nonetheless worth observing that in abstract physical terms, Lavrov’s claims are untrue. Despite losing the bulk of its territory, the armed opposition can still reasonably declare the affiliation of tens of thousands of fighters operating in Afrin, Idleb, Aleppo and northern Ar-Raqqa, many of whom are battle-hardened fighters displaced from areas captured by the Government forces across the country. 

In his statements, Lavrov again referenced the presence of HTS as a “terrorist group controlling Idleb,” while expressing faith in Turkey’s efforts to unwind the group. Such “faith” may be misplaced. While HTS has not proven to be the spoiler many analysts predicted it would be vis-a-vis Turkey’s plans in the province, Turkey has clearly failed to disband the group or induce it to dissolve into moderate armed formations. The absence of clear pressure points is one reason for this failure, but the most important reason is likely the fact that Turkey has a strong disincentive to eliminate the most important buffer between its own forces in Idleb and the local population. That said, Moscow has tentatively acknowledged the role played by HTS in confronting Al-Qaeda-linked splinter groups in the area, and some form of image rehabilitation by HTS is not entirely beyond the scope of imagination.

The conflict is over? Long live the conflict.

Ultimately, Lavrov’s statements should be taken with a grain of salt, and they clearly do not preface the cessation of Russian bombing campaigns in rebel-held Syria. However, the statements do perhaps indicate that for the first time, Russia, at least for now, has shelved the prospect of militarily eradicating the “terrorists” of the armed opposition. If so, an already frozen conflict may enter a deep freeze in which military flare ups — like the recent rumblings on Idleb frontlines — are a negotiating tactic and a prelude to more hard talks, not necessarily more fighting. This scenario depends on a number of variables: Syria’s economic situation and the Syrian regime’s stability; the policies of a likely Turkey-hostile and more pro-Iran Biden administration; and the political fortunes of Erdogan’s AKP. In the interim, what will likely follow in Syria is a period of consolidation on all sides. Bombardment will likely continue, but major military offensives are unlikely unless Russian-Turkish talks suffer a major breakdown.

3. Reports: High-ranking officials’ salaries increased

Damascus: On 22 September, local sources indicated that media reports are circulating that indicate Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has issued two decrees to raise the salaries of high-ranking state officials. According to the reports, the new salaries have been raised as follows:

  • Vice President of the Republic: 233,000 SYP ($106)
  • Prime Minister: 233,000 SYP ($106)
  • Deputy Prime Minister: 200,000 SYP ($91)
  • Governor: 153,500 SYP ($70)
  • Speaker of the People’s Assembly: 223,000 SYP ($102)
  • Deputy Speaker of the People’s Assembly: 200,000 SYP ($91)
  • Member of the People’s Assembly: 139,000 SYP ($64)

Gilding the lily

At first blush, the pay raise — if true — appears to be yet another of the manifold ways the Syrian regime has instrumentalized the state apparatus to line the pockets of corrupt officials. Yet upon inspection, the move beggars belief. The reported salary increase would raise a member of Syria’s parliament, the People’s Assembly, only slightly above the global poverty line, based on current market exchange rates. In truth, the contracted salaries of high-ranking officials and Syrian MPs are virtually meaningless. Not only does high office in Syria come with a multitude of fringe benefits that cover most material needs, but officeholders are tolerated, if not expected, to supplement their income through douceurs, kickbacks, and commercial ventures that trade on access and proximity to power. In this way, power in Syria begets power.

These factors complicate the rationale for the reported salary increase, and in the absence of verifiable statements from Syrian state media, they cast some doubt on the credibility of the reports. Of particular note, excluded from the reported pay rise are low-ranking officeholders and the sprawling public sector bureaucracy, which makes up the backbone of the Syrian labor market. Public sector salaries were last increased in November (see: Syria Update 20-26 November 2019). The paltry bump prompted ridicule at the time, and conditions have only become more dismal since. The extreme volatility of the Syrian economy has wiped out the small relief brought by the pay raise, and it has left the real value of public sector salaries even lower than they were before the November bump.

The Syrian state has often turned a tin ear toward the misery of the populace. It is by no means beyond the state to reward its supporters and hangers-on through payouts, but the grim cost-benefit analysis of the reported pay raise gives adequate reason to doubt the veracity of the reports until an official statement is released.

4. Big tech: Online retail comes to Idleb

Idleb: On 21 September, multiple sources reported the creation of an online retail service called Idleb Online. The service allows users in Idleb to make online purchases for commercial goods, to be fulfilled via Turkey by Idleb Online. Prices are listed in Turkish lira, and a surcharge of 20 percent is applied to all orders. Idleb Online is reportedly an independent enterprise, and it will not fulfill orders to other areas of Turkish influence, such as Euphrates Shield or Olive Branch areas. Local sources indicate that Idleb Online’s scope is limited outside the immediate vicinity of Idleb city.

In northwest Syria, all roads lead to Ankara

The actual scope and commercial success of Idleb Online are far less significant than its force as a signifier of the commercial, social, and administrative integration between northern Syria and Turkey. Indeed, the service’s appeal is limited, given the severity of humanitarian needs among the significant IDP population of northwest Syria. The 780,000 IDPs within Turkish-controlled northwest Syria far outnumber the 472,000 long-term residents, according to data compiled by the UN and implementing local partners. Even the displaced have needs — and a right — to creature comforts, but it is difficult to fathom that much of a consumer market exists in northwest Syria’s camps and densely populated urban settings.

Ultimately, Idleb Online is a totem of the commercial relations that are emerging in northwest Syria as a predicate to Turkey’s own deliberate efforts to solidify its presence in a region of Syria that has had more direct access to Istanbul than to Damascus for several years running.

5. Deadly clashes as protests erupt in Kanaker — again

Kanaker, Rural Damascus: On 22 September, media sources reported protests in the town of Kanaker on the western outskirts of Damascus. Demonstrators burned tires and pictures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The protests were allegedly sparked by the detention of three women and a girl for unknown reasons. Local and media sources reported that Military Intelligence attempted to break up the protests. However, this resulted in an exchange of fire with local fighters, resulting in the death of one Government soldier and injuring a brigadier general, Ali Saleh. Local sources also reported that the reconciliation committee met with the head of Military Intelligence, Talal Al-Ali, who pressured the committee to persuade protesters to stand down, in return for his efforts to secure the release of the detained women.

Another tear in the Damascus belt

The use of force to halt protests is nothing new in Syria, but the swift retaliation and fierce resistance by protesters are phenomena that would until recently have been unthinkable in most post-reconciliation contexts. Less unusual are the arrests that followed. All told, the events suggest Kanaker is becoming a hotspot of anti-Government dissent. In April, Government forces threatened to besiege the community if wanted individuals were not handed over (see: Syria Update 27 April). This followed a notable outburst of public protest over detainees in December, one of the first instances of a large-scale public demonstration in Government-held Syria, outside Dar’a (see: Syria Update 4-10 December 2019). In some sense, Kanaker is sui generis, and it is important not to see the protests there as a harbinger of violent dissent elsewhere in Government-held Syria. Kanaker has shown a persistent capacity to challenge the Government of Syria, a willingness that is all the more notable due to its proximity to Damascus itself. However, general economic deterioration in Syria is exacerbating already difficult conditions that exist across the board. In that sense, Kanaker can indeed be viewed as a reflection of the fact that social pressures are building throughout Government-held territory.

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 at War: Eight Years On

What Does It Say? The comprehensive report reviews the social, economic, and governance transformation that has occurred in Syria over the course of the conflict and offers a framework for moving forward to an inclusive and sustainable economic recovery and peacebuilding process.

Reading Between the Lines: The report is a catalogue of Syria’s compounding misfortunes, and it presents the simple reality that no progress on these files is possible without first realizing a just and inclusive peace. The longer the conflict persists, the clearer it becomes that tying humanitarian and development objectives to changes in the conflict itself will only perpetuate suffering on the ground.

Source: UNESCWA

Language: English

Date: September 2020

Ten-fold increase in COVID-19 cases adds new challenges in northwest Syria

What Does It Say? The number of COVID-19 cases in northwest Syria has increased tenfold over the last month.

Reading Between the Lines: The healthcare situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, not least because of a lack of proper protective gear and access to adequate facilities.

Source: MSF

Language: English

Date: 22 September 2020

Reliable no more? The current state of the Syrian armed forces

What Does It Say?  The once absolute loyalty of the Syrian regime military forces may now be fragmented due to the conflict.

Reading Between the Lines: Alawite control of the military apparatus appears to have lessened since 2011, much as it has across the board Syria. Indeed, many institutions once dominated by the insular sect have been penetrated to a high degree by Sunni political, economic, and wartime elites whose interests are bound up with those of the Syrian regime.

Source: Atlantic Council

Language: English

Date: 22 September 2020

The UN renews its vows in a 75th-birthday general non-assembly

What Does It Say? The 75th UN General Assembly convened virtually, marking a small change for a staid institution at a time when vested interests render vital changes seemingly impossible.

Reading Between the Lines: One challenge confronting the UN is the Syria conflict, a defining issue that has, in some respects, “broken” the UN system. The failure of the Security Council to agree to steps early in the conflict was among the factors that produced UNSC Resolution 2165, an affront to the national sovereignty basis of the international system itself. The UN’s capacity for self-sacrifice via the resolution is admirable, but it was also a demonstration of the organization’s capture by regional and ideological cliques.

Source: The Economist

Language: English

Date: 20 September 2020

Private Security Companies in Syria: New Agents at the Regime’s Service

What Does It Say? The regime sought to bring private security companies closer to the political power structure and link investors and businessmen with political and military leaders.

Reading Between the Lines: The Government of Syria has a history of putting most things under state control, this trend appears to be extending to private security organizations, thus showing another way in which a decentralization of authority in Syria is a mask for the consolidation of actual power.

Source: EUI

Language: English

Date: 10 September 2020

To the pockets of those close to Assad … 3.5 billion pounds a day is the price of smoke in Syria

What Does It Say? Tobacco farmers are obligated to sell their produce to the Syrian government at a predetermined rate that, like many agricultural products, no longer covers the cost of production.

Reading Between the Lines: Tobacco furnishes a clear example of Damascus’s power to profit from arbitrage. The Government is exploiting tobacco farmers by using monopoly power to buy raw tobacco at undervalued prices, and then selling the final cigarette products at exorbitantly high prices.

Source: 7al Net

Language:Arabic

Date: September 2020

Who Benefits from a U.S. Oil Deal in Northeast Syria?

What Does It Say? The Delta Crescent deal for the Syrian oil fields under Kurdish control faces significant obstacles both political and technical. Furthermore, there may be serious consequences from regional powers.

Reading Between the Lines: The oil deal will undoubtedly face challenges from the Government of Syria, if or when it resolves issues concerning the last remaining opposition stronghold in Idleb. When that does happen, the deal will likely not be long for this world. The more important question is how the Self-Administration will turn the deal to its advantage in the meantime.

Source: The Washington Institute

Language: English

Date: 18 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.