Syria Update

30 November 2020
Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 45_Cover
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Syrian opposition signals willingness to stand in elections. What does it mean?

In Depth Analysis

In a since-halted move that has outraged the entire spectrum of the Syrian opposition, on 19 November, the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (SNC) announced the formation of a commission to prepare “the Syrian opposition for participation in any future presidential, parliamentary and local elections, and preparing the Syrian street for electoral settings.” The High Commission for Elections was tasked with training dedicated cadres in “any accessible governorates inside Syria” and among the diaspora. The entity will also build bridges to civil society groups inside Government of Syria-held areas. Notably, no mention was made of a similar process inside areas held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Opposition supporters denounced the commission as a legitimation of electoral processes they view as corrupt and an abandonment of the Syrian uprising. Many perceive the move as a capitulation to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is widely anticipated to win the upcoming 2021 presidential elections. All told, the commission’s formation, though now paused as it undergoes a review, is a further signifier of the SNC’s evolution toward an expansive role as a coordinated, internal political opposition within Syria, in violation of the SNC’s own charter and its de facto mandate. The Coalition was meant only to midwife the Transitional Governance Committee as per the Geneva I agreement, leading to elections and the approval of a new constitution. Under this approach, the SNC itself was to be dissolved, not retool itself for electioneering. It is also noteworthy that the Electoral Commission’s formation was seemingly driven by a small coterie led by SNC President Nasser Al-Hariri, without broad coordination among its various consultative bodies and political committees. Indeed, the decision was not announced on the SNC’s official channels, but through social media accounts close to Al-Hariri.

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 45_Cover
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Making sense of the nonsensical?

The move was unexpected, but it is in line with the SNC’s increasingly active bids for relevance under Al-Hariri. Since assuming the SNC leadership in July 2020, Al-Hariri has expended considerable energy to improve the Coalition’s image and build greater capacity inside opposition-controlled areas of Syria, making several visits to establish SNC offices there. In recent months, Al-Hariri has also condemned the UN-facilitated Syrian Constitutional Committee — a multilateral process to approve a constitution — citing a lack of progress and the reality that, whatever its public declarations to the contrary, Russia continues to pursue a military solution to the conflict.

Multiple explanations for the move have circulated within opposition circles. Some posit that Ankara gave Al-Hariri and other opposition figures the green light to stand for election and challenge Al-Assad directly. However, the opposition’s participation will only strengthen the Syrian government’s claim to legitimacy if it does not also gain the support of Russia (and Iran) in compelling Al-Assad to stand aside. It is difficult to fathom Moscow assenting to a power play by the opposition or exerting meaningful pressure over Damascus, despite its increasingly public criticisms of Al-Assad (see: Syria Update 27 April 2020).

Another possibility is that the SNC initiative proceeded independent of any promises by Turkey and Russia, or any expectations from the international community, including the incoming Biden administration. In such a case, the move could be interpreted as an attempt by the Coalition to accept a fait accompli in Syria while laying the groundwork to create an electoral power base inside the country and among the sizable, engaged diaspora. If so, it would also signal the SNC’s acknowledgment that a transition that circumvents Al-Assad altogether is unrealistic.

Yet there is a third possibility that has not been much explored amid the furor: that the move does not signal willingness to participate alongside Al-Assad in the 2021 elections, but has a longer-term aim in mind. On its face, the gesture undercuts the argument that it is the Syrian opposition that is deadlocking Syria’s political transition. This move would gain steam if the incoming Biden administration were willing to apply meaningful pressure to bring northeast Syria under the same umbrella as the formal Syrian opposition. Notionally, the SDF’s leadership, including Mazloum Abdi, has expressed willingness to negotiate with Turkey and distance itself from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a precondition to satisfy Ankara. This would open a rift within the SDF’s ranks; and it is not clear the SDF could survive such a split. Although such a division would be a costly sacrifice, it would throw some of northeast Syria’s support behind the opposition and align the most formidable Syrian factions that remain outside Damascus’s remit. A rapprochement which has in recent months begun between the opposition-aligned Kurdish National Council (KNC) and northeast Syria’s dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) would also clear the way for such a detente.

Both the opposition and the SDF have much to lose in the long term in the absence of a political reconciliation, and there have been moves over the past year which signal their awareness of this reality. The maneuver also sends a message to the Biden administration: That the SNC has effectively given up its “precondition” that a political transition process in Syria proceed without Al-Assad. That the SNC is working toward becoming an effective actor on the ground is also notable. In this light, the move could be seen as turning a new leaf in sync with the arrival of a new U.S. administration that has Syria on its radar. However, the success of any such maneuvers would be contingent on the commitments of a Biden administration that, to date, appears insistent upon pursuing improbable objectives of its own (see: Syria Update 16 November 2020).

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 45_WebMap

1. Full lockdown in the northeast while cases continue to surge nationwide

Northeast Syria: On 26 November, the Self-Administration announced a 10-day lockdown in Al-Hasakeh, Quamishli, Tabqa, and Ar-Raqqa, to curb the spread of COVID-19 in northeast Syria. The decision follows the 14-day lockdown imposed in Al-Malikiyeh on 5 November, and closures will affect businesses, government institutions, and educational facilities in all areas under Self-Administration control, although hospitals, bakeries, and farmers will be exempt from movement restrictions. Authorities will distribute fuel, and transportation in and out of Self-Administration areas will be prohibited except for commercial purposes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 26 November, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Syria is 7,459. Figures compiled by other sources range much higher, with some placing the total number at 28,484 — itself an improbably low caseload.

Lack of coordination will confound mitigation

Throughout October and November, the Self-Administration enforced partial curfews and short-term lockdowns to blunt the spike in COVID-19 infections. Although testing limitations mean they are, to an extent, flying blind, the failure of these initiatives has left authorities little choice but to implement a full lockdown. By October, the Self-Administration had reportedly increased its testing capacity to 120-180 tests per day, a vanishingly small sample for a region that accommodates 4 million people. What is clear is that adherence to public safety guidelines has been minimal, and it will likely dip under lockdown conditions as public health imperatives collide with acute economic needs.

Looking ahead, surges in infections across camps in northeast Syria will remain a foremost concern. Multiple COVID-19 cases were recently confirmed in Al-Hol and Areesheh camps. The majority of camps suffer from a severe shortage of facilities and trained staff to combat the pandemic. Al-Hol appears to have the most functional services, while Areesheh, Newroz, and Roj camps reportedly lack trained staff and COVID-19 isolation wards. All told, the brief lockdown in northeast Syria may stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, but doing so will only buy more time until the next wave. Nationwide visibility is also needed. Although Syria remains divided among competing territorial actors, its regions do not have hard borders. Dense population centers and camps in the northwest heighten the risk to public health there, but spillover effects will not be contained to one area within Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian government’s blasé approach to COVID-19, treating it as a security risk rather than a public health challenge, will also confound efforts to combat the virus in isolation elsewhere.

2.The Syrian government auctions off fields in recaptured Hama and Idleb

Hama and Idleb governorates: On 16 November, local media reported that the Government of Syria is auctioning off agricultural lands seized from displaced residents following its latest military advances in the Hama and Idleb countrysides. Land auctions have been recurrent in northwest Syria in recent months. The auctions come as the Syrian government agricultural institutions mount a robust campaign to encourage farmers to increase their planted acreage. On 4 November, the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture launched a campaign designating the 2020-21 crop season the “Year of Wheat” with plans to cultivate an estimated 1.8 million hectares of the grain.

Planning on planting every arable acre

The Syrian government’s increasing desperation to acquire wheat stands as evidence that Damascus does not expect to win the coming crop season’s bidding war with the Self-Administration, despite past attempts to capture more of the region’s grain output (see: Syria Update 8 June 2020). Its past failures have meant that in recent months, Syria has faced acute bread shortages as supply has tightened (see: Syria Update 21 September 2020). Meanwhile, currency collapse and economic contraction have also factored in its inability to source foreing alternatives, and Russia has put the brakes on its wheat support, citing COVID-19, although it has been reported that withholding wheat aid is a deliberate pressure tactic by Moscow.

Introducing the Year of Wheat scheme and increasing grain cultivation will not cover the expected future shortfall. Disposing of “abandoned land” for agricultural use may, at the margins, ease the pressure facing Damascus, but the auctions also advertise to the displaced that they have nothing to return to. Local sources indicate that there has been no official statement concerning the confiscations. Theoretically, the displaced landowners will have redress to make claims on auctioned lands, yet actually doing so will be impracticable if not impossible.

3. After delisting Turkestan Islamic Party, the U.S. re-ups Jolani bounty

Washington, D.C.: On 24 November, the U.S. State Department published an Arabic-language tweet promising a $10 million bounty for Mohammad Al-Jolani, the commander of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). The announcement is set against the 20 October decision by the U.S. to remove the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — progenitor of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) — from its exclusion list, citing a lack of “credible evidence” that it “continues to exist.” Delisting the organization may lessen the compliance pressures facing aid actors in western Idleb, yet the far greater legal hurdle for implementers in the northwest is HTS, which has, under Jolani, tightened its grip as the dominant military force in the region. Of note, Jolani is virtually the only head of a major radical armed rebel group in Syria who has held onto influence (and his life) following more than nine years of conflict. The State Department first set a bounty for Jolani in 2017, and at that time tweeted that “All Syrians agree on two things, the first is having their coffee in the morning while listening to Fairouz and the second is that Jolani must get out of Syria.”

A curious time to talk tough

Tough talk from the U.S. concerning HTS, which it considers a Syrian affiliate of Al-Qaeda, is not surprising. What makes the announcement notable is its timing. Most obviously, the move follows the ETIM delisting, which is likely intended to pressure China, the group’s chief antagonist. Returning focus to HTS signals that the U.S. is not relenting on its overarching counterterrorism ambitions in northwest Syria. That does not mean that a change of course in the region is impossible. The move may signal the U.S.’s willingness to countenance an HTS presence, should the group rid itself of elements unacceptable to Washington, including Jolani. At the same time, a softened stance via TIP, which remains active in western Idleb, may give Turkey greater latitude to achieve its aims in the governorate by consolidating more palatable factions (including TIP) and isolating those considered unacceptable, such as the hardline wing of HTS. It is also possible that American war planners are indulging in the outgoing Trump administration’s lame duck period to take bolder action in the region, including by continuing to keep up pressure on high-value targets, even though its actual strategy for northern Syria remains an ill-defined low priority. HTS will remain in the picture, in some form, for the foreseeable future. Like other radical groups and the remnants of the armed opposition, its willingness to abide by the outcomes of Syria’s political processes, including the 2021 elections and the currently deadlocked Constitutional Committee, make it a wild card. It is a chastening reminder that ground realities in Syria will not necessarily track with international political agendas.

4. Two blasts rock Afrin and Al-Bab

Afrin and Al-Bab, Aleppo governorate: On 25 November, media sources reported that a vehicle explosion in Al-Bab city killed five civilians and injured at least 18 others. Shortly thereafter, another vehicle explosion, near the offices of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) in Afrin, killed at least two civilians, injured 17 others, and caused structural damage to buildings in the vicinity. As with past explosions in northwestern Syria, no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks. The UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Imran Riza, and the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, Muhannad Hadi, strongly condemned the attack.

Same thing different day

Such attacks in areas under nominal Turkish control highlight the violence that continues to mar northern Syria in a purposeful attempt to destabilize the region, particularly Al-Bab and Afrin. On 5 October, a vehicle explosion in Al-Bab killed 18 civilians and injured 75 others (see: Syria Update 12 October 2020). This year alone, more than 20 explosions have been recorded in Al-Bab, resulting in numerous civilian casualties and injuries. With no actor claiming these attacks, it remains unclear which antagonist of the Turkish military presence stands behind the perpetual insecurity and unrest in northern Syria. Naturally, Turkish media was quick to direct blame for the latest attacks at the YPG and other Kurdish forces. However, ISIS cells have also been active in the region, and their involvement cannot be fully ruled out. That said, it is likely that the uncertainty behind the attacks is intentional and serves to demonstrate that the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army has been unable to effectively secure and stabilize the area, which has been under Turkish control since 2017.

5. Turkey bolsters its forces as government rockets hit towns in southern Idleb

Idleb: On 25 November, media sources reported a Turkish military buildup on the M4 in western Idleb, after 30 Turkish military vehicles reportedly crossed from Turkey into the region. Since 2 February, monitoring groups report that military vehicles have made more than 10,000 crossings into Syrian territory from Turkey, ostensibly in support of a military buildup to defend against Syrian government advances. Relatedly, media sources reported that the Government of Syria rockets struck towns and villages in southern Idleb. No casualties were reported.

In Idleb, Turkey digs in 

The uneasy ceasefire in northwest Syria has held since an agreement between Turkey and Russia ended the last major offensive in Idleb in March 2020 (see: Syria Update 9 March 2020). Since then, attacks on joint Turkish-Russian military convoys, sporadic frontline clashes, and shelling of border communities have all taken place, although they have not seriously challenged the prevailing status quo. Local sources note that no major changes on frontlines in southern Idleb frontlines have been observed, yet Syrian government bombardment has picked up in recent months, and throughout Idleb there is a pervasive fear that a new offensive is on the horizon, a seemingly perennial concern for those wintering in Idleb. Turkey’s military buildup is intended to create a defensive perimeter along frontlines, suggesting that it will not surrender Jabal Al-Zawiyah, a Syrian government priority south of the M4, without a fight. Should the ceasefire collapse and conflict escalate, widespread displacement can be expected toward the Turkish border, which will harden in the face of COVID-19 and Turkey’s economic malaise.

6. Egyptian port authorities seize Syrian hashish bound for Sudan

Damietta, Egypt: On 22 November, media sources reported that Egyptian port authorities in Damietta intercepted six tons of Syrian hashish en route to Sudan. Reportedly, the drugs were concealed in small sachets, each weighing roughly 200 grams. The seized drugs’ value was estimated at 300 million Egyptian pounds (approx. $19 million).

The Syrian narco-state

In the absence of viable alternatives, widespread de-industrialization, and the collapse of exports, narcotics have occupied an increasingly central role in the Syrian national economy. All told, the narcotics leaving Syria now surpass the value of the Syrian government’s annual licit exports, which falls just short of $700 million. Arguably, the rise of Syria’s drug trade was a product of the breakdown of central state authority, and armed opposition factions and government-aligned groups alike funded their military activities through drug production and trafficking. Despite the elimination or marginalization of the opposition, drugs remain big business in Syria. The further fracturing of the Syrian state has made it impossible to close gaps exploited by drug traders in government-held areas. Importantly, however, the largest seizures often depart from Lattakia port, suggesting that the Syrian government or high-ranking officials in the ruling regime are directly involved in, or tolerate, the narcotics trade. Looking ahead, illicit economic activities create a vicious circle, and Syria’s continuing economic isolation will create a greater reliance on illicit revenue streams. Perversely, the networks needed to sustain these trades are strengthened as sanctions and international isolation concentrate power in the hands of smuggling networks that deal in commercial products like oil and medicine.

7. 90 families leave Al-Hol camp under SDF supervision

Al-Hol Camp, Al-Hasakeh governorate: On 24 November, media sources reported that 90 families (approx. 350 people) from Deir-ez-Zor governorate left Al-Hol camp under the supervision of the SDF. This is reportedly the sixth release from Al-Hol camp since the Self-Administration vowed to clear all Syrian families sheltering there (see: Syria Update 5 October 2020). Families seeking to leave the camp must register at the offices set up by the Self-Administration where the SDF would perform security screenings to ensure individuals wishing to leave were not linked with ISIS or accused of committing criminal acts. As of 4 October, 64,619 individuals remain in Al-Hol camp.

Challenges persist for the whole of Al-Hol 

Small-scale releases from Al-Hol camp are not new. Since June 2019, almost 6,070 residents have departed from the camp, of whom 1,211 were released following the Self-Administration’s announcement that it sought to shutter the facility. The rest were released through a tribal sponsorship system in which tribal leaders vouch for camp residents and ensure that those released from Al-Hol are not affiliated with ISIS and will not consort with the group in the future. That said, administrative bottlenecks and the sheer scale of the camp render mass release unrealistic for the foreseeable future. The majority of Al-Hol residents are Iraqi and Syrian children. In many instances, their inability to leave the camp is as much due to the fear of reprisal and stigmatization as procedural challenges. A lack of information about home communities and service unavailability are also critical issues. Slow repatriation by foreign governments has succeeded in kicking the can down the road, but that approach will merely defer hard decisions to deal humanely with camp residents. In the process, it will shift the burden from comparatively well-resourced governments to the Self-Administration.

8. Furor in Lebanon after a Syrian national is accused of murder

Bcharre, Lebanon: On 25 November, Lebanese media reported that a Syrian agricultural worker killed a Lebanese citizen in the town of Bcharre, Lebanon, following a personal dispute. The alleged perpetrator reportedly worked on a plot of land in the town. The incensed local community reportedly set fire to the homes of Syrians living in Bcharre and attacked some Syrians on the streets. Lebanese citizens also surrounded the town hall and demanded that the alleged killer be released into the people’s custody and called for the expulsion of Syrians from the town. Bcharre mayor Freddy Keyrouz stated that “all Syrians who are staying in the town illegally must leave immediately.”

Same scapegoats, same problems

Lebanon’s precipitous economic collapse and the political shell-game concerning government function and central bank reform have dramatically amplified the social and economic pressures facing the Lebanese population. Host-refugee relations between Lebanese and Syrians are a foremost concern as the two deeply interlinked crises spiral further out of control (see: Two Countries, One Crisis: The Impact of Lebanon’s Upheaval on Syria). In an acute sense, the onset of Lebanon’s ruinous banking crisis in late 2019 has devastated the labor market, driving many Lebanese out of work and forcing many more to countenance working in low-skill positions that were previously the preserve of Syrian migrants. The outright failure of long-underperforming state service networks has driven many Lebanese to blame Syrians for burdening a state that could not, in the best of times, meet the needs of Lebanese themselves. The violent outburst in Bcharre is a stark reminder of the volatile social tensions that exist in distressed Lebanese communities. Social cohesion and host community programming will remain clear imperatives long into the future.

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.

A Chinese grant of 100 buses to solve the transportation crisis in the provinces

What does it Say? China announced that it would be giving the Government of Syria 100 buses for use within Syrian government areas.

Reading Between the Lines: The gesture is mostly optical. Syrian public transit mobility is decimated by ruined infrastructure and unaffordable fuel.

Source: Syrian PC

Language: Arabic

Date: 24 November 2020

Denmark company charged for violating EU sanctions on Syria

What does it Say? Denmark has fined a Danish company for violating EU sanctions and doing business with the Government of Syria by supplying fuel to the Russian military in Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: The incident is a reminder of the opportunities that remain for the international community to contribute to justice in Syria.

Source: Middle East Monitor

Language: English

Date: 12 November 2020

The oil pledges in SDF areas are violating ‘Caesar’ and threatening the environment

What does it Say? The report indicates that the Self-Administration has handed over the operation of many oil wells to civilian contractors in Deir-ez-Zor in exchange for huge sums of money.

Reading Between the Lines: the operation of oil infrastructure in northeast Syria requires a complex balance between local community needs and those of the region’s overarching administrative body. While handing off some activities eliminates operating costs for the Self-Administration, it also raises the risk of sanctions violations and unintended environmental impacts by civilian contractors.

Source: Al Modon

Language: Arabic

Date: 20 November 2020

Interactive Map

What does it Say? An interactive map showing ethnicity distribution.

Reading Between the Lines: The map shows the diversity of religious and ethnic subcommunities that exists within northeast Syria, in defiance of the standard trope that the region is only Arab or Kurdish.

Source: QGIS Cloud

Language: English

Date: No date

Deir Ezzor protests: Residents stage vigil in Al-Shuhayl, calling for provision of fuel for heating

What does it Say? Residents in Deir-ez-Zor have staged protests demanding the SDF provide heating fuel. The SDF fired shots to disperse the crowds.

Reading Between the Lines: Self-Administration areas are experiencing fuel troubles of their own, leading some to question whether the shortfall is due to a genuine deficit or their onward sales to outside parties.

Source: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

Language: English

Date: 24 November 2020

Twenty-one pro-Turkey militants killed in Syrian minefield

What does it Say? Twenty-one combatants for the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army were killed near Ein Issa when landmines planted along the Syrian northern borders exploded.

Reading Between the Lines: Media reports suggest that landmines were planted by the SDF in an ambush against the Turkish-allied forces. This type of incident is not uncommon and occurred concurrently with two massive blasts in Al Bab and Afrin. It is likely to incite insecurity and violence in Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria.

Source: Ahval News

Language: English

Date: 25 November 2020

The Arab-German Chamber of Commerce excludes Mohammad Hamsho 

What does it Say? The German-Arab Chamber of Industry and Commerce (GACIC) excluded Syrian businessman Mohammad Hamsho from its board of directors. The dismissal comes after a German media report emerged in September questioning how a sanctioned Syrian businessman, not allowed to enter Germany, can be on the board of directors of a Berlin-based entity. 

Reading Between the Lines: Although Hamsho was ultimately dismissed from the GACIC, it remains unclear why it took this long to dismiss him, especially because Hamsho is known to be close to the Government of Syria, and Maher Al-Assad in particular.

Source: Enab Baladi

Language: Arabic

Date: 24 November 2020

The SDF Seeks a Path Toward Durable Stability in North East Syria

What does it Say? The article discusses the uncertainty of U.S. policy in Syria and the potential ramifications of an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from the northeast. 

Reading Between the Lines: The article argues that a sudden U.S. troop withdrawal from northeast Syria may prompt a humanitarian crisis, an ISIS resurgence, and a renewed conflict between Turkey and the SDF. It argues that the U.S. should commit to a gradual and conditional withdrawal that protects civilians.

Source: International Crisis Group

Language: English

Date: 25 November 2020

Israeli strikes in Syria kill 8 pro-Iran fighters

What does it say? Israeli airstrikes targeted a Hezbollah and Iranian weapons storage facility in southern Syria and killed eight pro-Iranian fighters. 

Reading Between the Lines: The strikes are a continuation of last week’s Israeli airstrikes that killed three Syrian soldiers. Likely to keep attempting to drive a wedge between Syrian fighters and Iranian militias, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah.

Source: Zaman Al-Wasel

Language: English

Date: 25 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.