Syria Update

24 November 2020
Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 44_Cover
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Changes to military service reflect Damascus’s unrealistic aims, growing socio-economic divide

In Depth Analysis

On 18 November, the Government of Syria Army Command issued two administrative decrees that effectively terminate military service for certain classes of reservists, effective 1 February 2021. The orders apply to:

  • Syrian Arab Army (SAA) officers who will have served as reservists for two or more years by January 2021; 
  • Doctors specializing in managing medical services who have served as reservists for two or more years and whose services are no longer required in the SAA; 
  • Non-commissioned officers who have served as reservists for more than seven and a half years; and
  • Non-commissioned officers born in 1982 (sic.) and who served as reservists for more than two years.

Few reservists will benefit from the decrees, which mirror a similar, but narrower set of demobilization orders that had an extremely limited impact in March. Then as now, the Syrian state likely has three objectives in mind: boosting the pandemic response, cutting costs, and burnishing its own image in order to incentivize returns. In all cases, the demobilization will achieve no significant effect. Notionally, the release of physicians from reserve duty will bolster the battered public health sector’s capacity. Any improvement in this sphere will be welcomed, as COVID-19 continues to ravage the country. Demobilizing high-ranking officers may also shave public salary costs, although its impact will be modest in the grand scheme of the state budget. Perhaps most important to Damascus is the potential public relations boost derived from the decrees. Implicitly, demobilization is a conciliatory gesture — one of several in recent weeks — of Syria’s willingness to rewrite the terms of military service in the country and to clear the way for returns, following the much-touted International Conference for the Return of Syrian Refugees in Damascus (see: Syria Update 16 November 2020).

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 44_Cover
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Conflict conditions and military conscription are deeply connected to state legitimacy and refugee return in Syria. Indeed, security and conscription rank among the most important push factors, alongside livelihoods and shelter needs, according to intentions surveys. Damascus understands this, although its willingness and capacity to take meaningful steps on the issues are limited (see: Syria Update 2 November 2020). On 15 November, Local Administration and Environment Minister Hussein Makhlouf announced that the Government of Syria had drafted a refugee return plan that encompasses amnesty decrees, temporary shelter for those impacted by conflict destruction, and a one-year deferral for individuals wanted for conscription. Damascus has repeatedly offered conscription deferrals to returnees in the past. Seldom have they had much impact, and they are not expected to prompt returns now, given that security conditions remain fluid, even in nominally pacified areas. More urgently needed are demobilizations for the many SAA fighters who have been at war for nearly a decade, as have many opposition fighters, too. However, Damascus is unlikely to countenance meaningful demobilization so long as the conflict continues, a prospect that grows more worrying as tensions escalate in the northwest.

Syrian government forces. Image courtesy of Alsouria.

First as tragedy, then as farce

Nonetheless, changes to mandatory military service are taking place, and they reflect the evolving needs of the state. Military service is a constitutionally enshrined “sacred duty” in Syria and a touchstone of civil-military relations. However, on 3 November, the Syrian government announced a decree allowing Syrians residing inside the country to pay a waiver in lieu of military conscription (see: Syria Update 9 November 2020). Previously, the release was available only to Syrians abroad, at a cost of $8,000. Those inside the country were able to avoid military service, but only if they had both the money and a connection to a military insider who could illicitly strike their names from the service rolls. Notably, those who avoid service will face secondary costs, albeit largely symbolic ones. Syrians who take advantage of the waiver will be ineligible for governmental housing and cooperatives and are barred from drafting loans from Syrian public banks for five years. Those who can afford to pay the release — equivalent to more than 21 years of state pay for a doctor working in the Syrian public sector, at current exchange rates — are unlikely to turn to the state for loans and housing benefits.

Nonetheless, the conditions imposed on Syrians who waive military service raises the prospect that the state can alter the social contract. More important yet, the creation of the mechanism draws a more distinct — and formal — line between the tight circle of wealthy Syrians who have profited from the protracted war and the larger mass of the public that has paid the greatest price for it. This is particularly worrisome given the sharp decline in Syrians’ economic fortunes in recent months. The declining real value of fuel subsidies and social support has resulted in predictable surges to the cost of consumer goods, including the vegetables, fruits, and rice and bulgur that Syrians have turned to as meat and bread have become increasingly dear, if they are available at all. The Syrian pound is trading near its lowest-ever value, approximately 2,800 SYP/USD. Syrians have few vehicles to agitate for better labor conditions or higher wages, particularly in the state-dominated workforce (see: The Syrian Economy at War: Labor Pains Amid the Blurring of the Public and Private Sectors). Beyond clear livelihoods and aid impacts, the international aid community must be cognizant of the long-term consequences of the protracted conflict and economic implosion in Syria. As a direct result of its growing dysfunction, the Syrian government is less able to provide needed services. To add insult to abundant injury, civil servants and the state bureaucracy have both become more reliant upon bribery and fee-collection. As a result, access to housing, land, and property documentation, civil and vital registry records, and passports has become a revenue stream first, and core function of government second. This subtle and deep-rooted erosion of the rule of law in Syria will have important long-term outcomes. The standstill in conflict conditions amplifies its impact as the Syrian state becomes more divided and more inequitable. Accordingly, aid actors will have to dig deeper to undo the harm now being done.

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 44_WebMap

1. Few changes expected as FM deputy Mekdad steps in for Muallem

Damascus: On 22 November, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appointed Faiysal Mekdad, as foreign minister, placing him in the spot left vacant by the death of longtime chief diplomat Walid Muallem, who died in Damascus on 16 November. Mekdad is expected to carry on with the unremitting approach of his predecessor, Muallem, under whom Mekdad served as deputy head of the Syrian Foreign Ministry since 2006. Muallem was an unapologetic defender of the Syrian government’s response to the incipient uprising, including an obstreperous speech he delivered at the Geneva 2 conference in 2014. As such, Muallem was at the bleeding edge of the Government of Syria’s denial strategy and blame-shifting, and he was placed under EU restrictive measures in 2012, amid one of the first rounds of Western sanctions against Syrian government officials responsible for civilian deaths during the conflict.

Syria’s foreign policy to stay the course

Mekdad’s appointment will come as unwelcome news to the aid community. If past behavior is any guide, a Mekdad foreign ministry will likely introduce a more unrelenting approach to access and interfacing with the Syrian government for programmers. Diplomatically, few if any changes to Syria’s external affairs can be expected under Mekdad. Having worked in the foreign ministry for more than half a century, Muallem was an architect of mainline Syrian foreign policy thought. He was known for unconventional press conferences and his economy with the truth, and although he was a pillar at the ministry, his direct influence declined alongside his health in recent years. As Muallem receded, backbenchers have stepped forward to fill his shoes. Among them were Mekdad, Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s UN envoy, and Mansour Azzam, whose formal role as minister for presidential affairs is itself an indication of how deeply Syria’s foreign policy and the presidency have converged around the issue of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s reign.

2. In a rare move, Israel publicly claims responsibility after bombing the Syrian army

Damascus: At least three Syrian soldiers were killed in Israeli airstrikes near Damascus after Israel accused Iranian-backed Syrian forces of planting IEDs near the ceasefire line in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. An Israeli military spokesperson listed targets as including “a military camp under Iranian command near the airport in Damascus; a military site near Damascus used by senior Iranian officers; the headquarters of Division 7 in the Syrian Golan Heights, from which Iranian Quds Force personnel operate; and Syrian army surface-to-air missile batteries.” Israel also reportedly activated its Iron Dome air-defense system in anticipation of reprisal attacks from southern Syria.

A Golan opportunity to send a message

It is rare (though not unprecedented) for Israel to claim responsibility for airstrikes in Syria. The fact that it has done so now sends a clear message, intended both to embarrass Damascus and grab the attention of the international community. To that end, the strikes indicate that regardless of potential changes to U.S. priorities following Donald Trump’s electoral loss, there should be no ambiguity that Israel will continue its military operations against Iran in Syria. It is also a message to Moscow, which has failed to rein in Iranian influence despite promises it made when the Syrian government returned to the south in 2018. And it is, of course, a message to Damascus and Tehran. It suggests that Israel remains cognizant of continuing attempts by Iran to “reflag” its forces by deploying alongside Syrian regulars.

The most notable message is to Syrian fighters themselves. The Israeli raids targeted the headquarters of Division 7 in the Golan Heights, which is closely linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and is headed by Major General Akram Howaija. Howaija was among the Syrian military commanders specifically named in leaflets that were dropped in south Syria — presumably by Israel — in October. The explicit messaging evidently sought to drive a wedge between Syrian fighters and Iranian proxy groups, such as the IRGC and Hezbollah. This coincides with local reports indicating that Syrians are increasingly being recruited for surveillance operations by the IRGC and Hezbollah. In the long term, Iran may succeed in channeling the energies of former opposition insurgents away from Damascus and toward a new fight against Israel. This ambition is in tension with Russia’s plans for hegemony over southern Syria, and it conflicts with Damascus’s own signals of notional openness toward (conditional) normalization with Israel. It is also unclear that Damascus will allow southern Syria to follow the same ruinous trajectory of resistance and blowback that has pervaded southern Lebanon since the middle years of the Lebanese civil war. All told, instability and occasional violence are likely to pervade the geopolitically sensitive region for the foreseeable future, with the potential to trigger knock-on effects elsewhere.

3. Saudi-Iraqi Arar border crossing opens, and with it another Syrian gateway to the Gulf

Arar, Iraq: On 18 November, media sources reported that Saudi Arabia and Iraq have reopened the Arar border crossing, an important conduit of bilateral trade and a potential egress for Syria’s own trade to the Gulf. The crossing has been closed since 1990 when Saudi Arabia and Iraq severed ties after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Reportedly, trucks had queued for two days to use the crossing.

Two is better than one

Syria will expect to capitalize on growing regional trade to boost its exports to the Arab Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, the largest recipient of Syrian exports in 2018 ($105 million, according to UN Comtrade). Provided security conditions stabilize and trade barriers between Syria and Iraq are overcome, the newly opened Arar crossing will provide Syria with a valuable alternative to the Nassib-Jaber crossing in southern Syria. Traffic through Nassib has been capped by limitations on volume and repeated closures since the crossing point was re-opened in October 2018 (see: Syria Update 9 November 2020). Introducing an alternative will give Syrian trade negotiators with Jordan additional leverage, and exporters will gain flexibility. Syrian consumers, however, may lose out if exports rise and push domestic prices higher yet. Notably, just as the Arar crossing was closed due to regional geopolitical turbulence, its opening also reflects changing political realities. Saudi Arabia is altering its posture and opening its arms to liberalized regional trade as it comes to grips with declining economic forecasts and the end of the era of easy money and government largesse. The opening will allow Saudi Arabia to compete with Iran for commercial and political influence in Iraq and — potentially — in Syria too. However, Syria’s ability to capitalize on the Arar opening will be subject to Riyadh’s whim.

4. Asma al-Assad meets Russian envoy to discuss child repatriation

Damascus, Lattakia: On 13 November, media sources reported that Asma al-Assad met with the Russian President’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Anna Kuznetsova, to discuss the repatriation of Russian children from the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps. Among the specific topics discussed were psychosocial support and educational and physical training for the children. Asma al-Assad stated that the state would make every effort to cooperate until all Russian children were removed from the camps. She also stressed Damascus’s willingness to work with Russia to remove Syrian children from the camps. Of note, the discussions followed the international returnees conference, in which Kuznetsova participated (see: Syria Update 16 November 2020).

Asma burnishes her public image 

The coordination is unlikely to hasten the repatriation of children — whether Syrian or Russian — from the camps, which are both located in areas under the firm control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, not the Syrian government. To that end, getting Self-Administration authorities and Damascus to read from the same script is a foremost challenge to reducing camp populations, which include Iraqis in significant numbers (see: Syria Update 12 October 2020). For the Syrian government, coordination with Russia boosts ties with a key ally and complements the messaging of the international refugees conference hosted in Damascus earlier this month. Like the conference, however, its chief outcome is aesthetic, albeit in a different way. Asma al-Assad’s growing prominence has been on full display in recent months. Understood as the prime mover behind the now-sanctioned telecoms operator Emma Tel, Syria’s first lady has seemingly bulldozed the interests of the once-untouchable business titan Rami Makhouf, principal of Syriatel, and has seized his former charity, al-Bustan Foundation, since rebranded al-Areen. Al-Assad’s pivot toward humanitarian action and a softer public image has not been seamless, however. Al-Areen faced enormous backlash after a shoddy aid distribution in Homs forced thousands of beneficiaries to crowd into an overpacked stadium in an event with seemingly little purpose apart from glorifying the first lady (see: Syria Update 2 November 2020). Al-Assad has also spearheaded a charm offensive on the Syrian coast, where she made aid pledges to fire-affected communities. During a tour of Lattakia, al-Assad also met with civil committees and discussed proposals for agricultural and industrial projects. By blending industry, civil society, and humanitarian action, al-Assad has positioned herself as a force to be reckoned with in post-conflict Syria. Like so much else in Syria’s modern history, the result is likely to be a greater entanglement of the state and the individual, in which access depends not on need but the good graces of the al-Assad regime.

5. A spate of ‘unknown’ airstrikes hit IRGC-backed militias in eastern Syria

Ar-Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor governorates: Multiple airstrikes reportedly targeted Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria between 12-14 November, with the most significant killing six militiamen near Abukamal, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Earlier airstrikes were also reported to have targeted Iranian-backed militias in the southern and southeastern countryside of Ar-Raqqa. On 13 November, residents in Ar-Raqqa reported aircraft over the city and a large explosion, which reportedly shattered glass in local homes and shops. The airstrikes have not been publicly claimed by either of the likely culprits, Israel and the U.S-led International Coalition. Meanwhile, it has been reported that the International Coalition targeted an oil tanker linked to the sanctioned Qaterji oil trading empire, although no other sources have verified this attack.

You can run, and you can hide

Iranian-backed militias near Abukamal have been repeatedly targeted by unclaimed airstrikes over the past few months, killing dozens of fighters. In the past, the International Coalition has denied responsibility, dismissing such allegations as falsehoods spread by pro-Assad media. Dominant amongst the Iranian-backed groups in Deir-ez-Zor, in particular, are the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Despite warming relations with the militias at the peak of the fight against ISIS, relations soured following the Trump administration’s killing of Qassem Soleimani, which led to widespread anger and a surge in attacks by some PMF groups against U.S. forces in Iraq. Airstrikes by the U.S. in the area, which may target the PMF in Syria mistakenly or otherwise as part of the IRGC-backed militia mix, may thus further antagonize Iraqi popular opinion against the U.S. Furthermore, while some PMF groups have escalated criticisms into armed attacks against U.S. forces, not all have. Israel, meanwhile, is widely believed to have bombed Iranian-backed militias in the region, including targeting the PMF on either side of the Syrian-Iraqi border as U.S. officials reportedly confirmed to their Iraqi counterparts in January 2020.

In any case, whether it is the International Coalition or Israel that is responsible for the latest string of “unclaimed” airstrikes in eastern Syria, there is a distinct possibility that attacks on IRGC-backed targets will surge before Joe Biden assumes the presidency and seeks rapprochement with Iran (see: Syria Update 16 November 2020). Biden has been a vocal critic of Trump’s annulment of the Iranian nuclear deal and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing government. On the ground in Syria, this may well translate into a parting shot against Iran-linked targets as Tel Aviv and the Trump administration see the window to pressure Iran closing. All told, local security conditions may fluctuate, but short of radical action on the part of the Trump or Netanyahu governments, Iran-linked forces in eastern Syria are likely to lie low as they play for time and await more favorable conditions to materialize.

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.

Russia and the EU in Syria: Need for New Approaches? 

What Does It Say? The papers outline two competing visions for reconstruction in Syria, from the perspective of Europe and Russia. 

Reading Between the Lines: Successfully navigating reconstruction will require Western actors to recognize some of Russia’s objectives, including the possibility that the political transition that underpins much of the Western outlook for Syria’s future likely will not take place in a serious way.

Source: Russian International Affairs Council

Language: English

Date: No date

Three scenarios explain the security escalation in Idleb

What Does It Say? The article posits three explanations for the uptick in shelling in Idleb: Iranian hopes of sabotaging the current ceasefire to carve out more space, disagreement between Russia and Turkey over the status quo, and the possibility that the region is lurching toward a new outbreak of violence as a step toward a new frontline agreement. 

Reading Between the Lines: The long-running standstill in Idleb is an anomaly in the conflict, and it reflects the relative unwillingness of any major party to escalate in the interest of achieving better outcomes. The agreement is now seen as an untenable but open-ended status quo. Who will blink first — and begin to escalate in earnest, as is likely — is impossible to say.

Source: Eqtsad

Language: Arabic

Date: 15 November 2020

The Government of Syria’s revenues from issuing passports is approximately $22 million 

What Does It Say? More than 69,000 passports were issued or renewed for the Syrian diaspora in 2020, culminating in $22 million in revenues for the treasury. 

Reading Between the Lines: The Syrian economy is in shambles. Issuance and renewal of diaspora passports provides a steady and certain source of income for the government. Notably, the regular passport renewal for Syrians outside of Syria costs $325 (first-come, first-served), while fast-tracked renewal costs $825.

Source: Jesr Press

Language: Arabic

Date: 17 November 2020

IED targets Baath Party ceremony in a school in Talbiseh

What Does It Say? The Resistance Brigade (Saraya al-Mouqawama) claimed an IED attack targeting a Baath Party ceremony in a school in Talbiseh. 

Reading Between the Lines: Although the group claimed the attack was due to the government’s failure to implement health and safety precautions against COVID-19, it is more likely that it signals political resistance.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 16 November 2020

US should stay in Eastern Syria, a refuge of religious freedom – expert

What Does It Say? The article argues that the U.S. military presence in northeast Syria should be prolonged because it creates space for religious freedom. 

Reading Between the Lines: While religion has been instrumentalized to divide and punish in the long Syria conflict, the harmony presented by the author is exaggerated.

Source: The Jerusalem Post

Language: English

Date: 17 November 2020

Syria’s Constitutional Committee: The Devil in the Detail

What Does It Say? The article breaks down the background of each member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. 

Reading Between the Lines: To date, the committee has achieved virtually nothing, and its work remains deadlocked because the format permits the Syrian government bloc to stymie progress until it achieves desired outcomes in other aspects of the conflict.

Source: Karam Shaar

Language: English

Date: 16 November 2020

Minister Al-Zamil is working to raise the generation to 3200 MW at best, while the need is 7000 MW

What Does It Say? The Syrian minister of electricity has warned of power outages, noting that while Syria can hope to generate 3,200 megawatts of electricity, at least 7,000 megawatts is required.

Reading Between the Lines: Winter months in conflict-stricken Syria are brutal. Gaps in the state’s power capacity presage additional misery unless winterization aid rises to needed levels.

Source: Syria Steps

Language: Arabic

Date: 15 November 2020

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

What Does It Say? The document is in-depth report on Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its continued role in Idleb, the bastion of the Syrian opposition.

Reading Between the Lines: HTS’s role in a future Syria has often been ignored. Western powers do not yet know the extent of HTS’s pragmatism, but they should test these limits.

Source: European Council on Foreign Relations

Language: English

Date: No date

Syrians are increasingly recognizing Turkey’s disrupting role in Syria

What Does It Say? The author points to recent events as evidence that Turkey’s role as overlord of the armed Syrian opposition is neither wholly welcomed by Syrians, nor productive. 

Reading Between the Lines: Although Syrians do question Turkey’s intentions in Syria, the conclusion that Western support should be provided to beef up the opposition to equalize its force with that of the Syrian government is improbable and difficult to countenance. Western military support for the opposition evaporated long ago. It is unlikely to return. The most direct path to a political settlement is via politics, not further detours into military escalation.

Source: The Washington Institute

Language: Arabic

Date: 13 November 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.