7 December 2020
Turkey pressures Ein Issa as the SDF pivots toward politics
In Depth Analysis
On 5 December, Turkish troops and Syrian National Army (SNA) forces heavily shelled Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) positions in and around Ein Issa and Abu Rasin, as Turkey tests the soft boundaries of the Peace Spring area in northeast Syria. Violence in the area has flared throughout the past month, particularly in Ein Issa, a pivotal transit hub and administrative center of vital importance to the SDF. On 28 November, the SNA shelled Ein Issa and multiple SDF positions on its outskirts, reportedly injuring several civilians. Sporadic clashes between the SNA and SDF were also reported around the town. The flare-up follows shortly after Turkey established a new military base in Sayda, north of Ein Issa and approximately 100 meters from the M4. Additional Turkish reinforcements have begun to mount near the Turkish-Syrian border in Urfa province inside Syria, SNA combatants and SDF troops have been deployed to reinforce their respective positions along both sides of the M4 highway, which intersects Ein Issa.
The region has been a flashpoint of clashes and frequent shelling by Turkish-backed groups since Turkey gained a foothold in northeast Syria during Operation Peace Spring in October 2019. The recent rise in fighting, coupled with the new Sayda outpost, signals Turkey’s willingness to entrench its forces and escalate to generate further pressure on the SDF. Talk of a major Turkish offensive in the region appears premature, but lower-level escalation will also have consequences for regional mobility, access, and displacement. Already, as many as 200 families have reportedly fled Ein Issa, and others have been displaced from Abu Rasin, fearing further escalation.
Several factors explain Turkey’s interest in using Ein Issa as a pressure point against the SDF. The community hosts a large number of Self-Administration civil institutions, making it the effective nerve center of northeast Syria. In 2015, with the support of the U.S.-led international coalition, the SDF took control of Ein Issa from ISIS and authorized the U.S. to establish a military base in the town. The base imparted stability to the area and prompted the Self-Administration to relocate many of its own governance institutions and civil councils there. Various aid organizations followed. Notably, the former U.S. military base, south of the community, is now garrisoned by Russian forces, which entered the area following the U.S. withdrawal from the town in October 2019.
Perhaps more is Ein Issa’s location in northern Ar-Raqqa governorate, which makes it an important node linking northern Syria along both east-west and north-south axes. Western communities under SDF control such as Ain Al Arab (Kobani) and Menbij are reliant upon the M4 for access to the Self-Administration’s core regions. Moreover, Ein Issa acts as the gateway to Ar-Raqqa city, which remains a key focus for aid activities and now hosts numerous aid organizations, which relocated in part due to the violence in Ein Issa itself. The M4 also connects northeast Syria to Syrian government-held territory. In early November, Ankara expressed its frustration that the M4 is used as an oil supply route from Self-Administration areas to government-held territories, offering a potential pretext for military activity to sever access to the highway.
Plausible but unrealistic
Russia’s military presence in Ein Issa is small and largely symbolic, yet it is seen as the breakwater impeding a full-on Turkish incursion to splinter SDF control over the M4. Locally, there is popular backlash against Russia for failing to intercede following Turkey’s latest escalation. Russian indifference has prompted fears that Moscow will acquiesce to Turkish military pressure as a means of bringing the SDF back to the negotiating table with Damascus. Russia has reportedly renewed its demand that the SDF return control of Ein Issa to the Syrian government. However, speculation over Russian-Turkish coordination over their respective military objectives in Syria is frequently overheated. So-called “land swaps” have likely occurred, but more often than not, opportunities for the parties to realize mutually beneficial objectives have gone unrealized (see: ‘Land Swaps’: Russian-Turkish Territorial Exchanges in Northern Syria). Russia has its own agenda for northeast Syria (see: Syria Update 7 September 2020), and it is also likely to resist Turkish actions that would jeopardize the oil supply to Damascus.
Provided Russia maintains its presence in Ein Issa, an incursion in the area is unlikely. However, a breakdown in the complex regional Russian-Turkish relationship could open a breach in Syria, including Ein Issa. Turkey has shown itself willing to throw caution to the wind, which may manifest itself as a more purposeful assault against the SDF, irrespective of Russia’s troop presence. The direct Russian-Turkish confrontation in Idleb earlier this year is evidence of Ankara’s tolerance for brinkmanship.
Pivoting to politics, war by other means
Given its precarious relationships with the U.S. and Russia, the SDF has sought to improve its standing with Turkey as it continues to play for international support. SDF commander Mazloum Abdi recently admitted publicly that Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-trained non-Syrian combatants are present in northeast Syria, fighting in the SDF’s ranks, a nod to Turkey’s most vocal concern over the Self-Administration. The admission brings to light one of the worst-kept secrets in Syria. This is a start, but placating Ankara will be another matter. The recognition may signal the SDF’s realization that it is unlikely to win a tug-of-war with Turkey over the U.S.’s support — irrespective of how frayed the Ankara-Washington relationship becomes.
Notably, Abdi has also expressed his intention to resign from his military position and return to political life. In a media blitz, Abdi has undertaken interviews seemingly geared toward the international donor community and foreign policymakers. All told, the maneuvering suggests the Self-Administration’s hopes of gradually converting its military power base into political leverage. To date, a clear end game has eluded the Self-Administration. It has no real purchase over the formal Geneva process, but that is not the only way to exert influence in Syria. There is no denying the ground truth that the Self-Administration’s actual leverage is strong, provided it can be deployed effectively as its external partnerships evolve.
Whole of Syria Review
1. Building out its presence, Turkey constructs a new military outpost in Idleb
Jabal Al-Zawiya: On 30 November, media sources reported that the Turkish army began constructing a new military observation post in the Jabal Al-Zawiya region of southern Idleb governorate. According to local media reporting, this new military outpost will be close to the Government of Syria soldiers stationed near current frontlines.
After dismantling its encircled outpost in Murak, Turkey is digging in its heels to defend current frontlines in Idleb (see: Syria Update 26 October 2020). Establishing a new Jabal Al-Zawiya outpost will complement the considerable Turkish military presence in the area, which is understood as the focal point of Russian and Syrian government attempts to push back the armed opposition. Turkey’s military buildup will raise the cost of Syrian government efforts to retake territory militarily. Should the Syrian government’s intermittent shelling and bombardment of frontline communities escalate into a full-on military campaign, it will require robust Russian air support, which will likely prompt an intense Turkish response of the kind witnessed in February and March 2020. This is an ominous prospect for the region’s civilian population and the aid community. Approximately one million people had been displaced by the time Russia and Turkey reached a deal to de-escalate in Idelb in March (see: Syria Update 9 March 2020). Facing domestic economic pressures of its own, Ankara vacillated between barring the gate and keeping the displaced inside Syria’s borders, and opening its western frontier to migrants as a means of pressuring Europe. Turkey can be expected to approach future displacement similarly. In either case, should a full-throated offensive resume, considerable displacement into northern Idleb and western rural Aleppo can be expected.
2. Central Bank sets a new exchange rate for military service waivers
Damascus: On 1 December, media sources reported that the Central Bank of Syria introduced another currency conversion rate — 2,550 SYP/USD — to be used in waiver payments for those avoiding compulsory military service (see: Syria Update 24 November 2020). The new exchange rate is roughly equivalent to the current black market rate and double the “preferential rate” of 1,256 SYP/USD used for some official transactions. The compulsory service allowance is set at $3,000, or 7,650,000 SYP. In parallel, the Syrian government has also adjusted the cost of the military service waiver paid by Syrians living abroad. For those living overseas for four years or longer, the price of the waiver has been set to $7,000 and must be paid in U.S. dollars. Those living abroad for three years or less must pay $8,000.
Damascus asks more, gives less
Introducing a new exchange rate allows the Syrian government to have its cake and eat it too. By keeping the existing preferential rate low, the government can suppress its costs and profit from arbitrage on foreign cash entering the country, including for aid activities. In parallel, the introduction of the new rate effectively doubles the pace at which SYP revenues will pour into the state’s coffers from Syrians seeking to waive military service. The gesture is a tacit acknowledgment that the real exchange rate is far more unfavorable than the Central Bank admits. Yet there is little that Syrians can do about it. The initiative is the latest example of the state’s creative maneuvering to transfer costs onto the population. The state has also created incentives for Syrians to remain abroad, including by reducing costs for military waivers attained after longer stays outside the country, where their sole interactions with the state come in the form of revenue-generating record requests such as passport renewals, without the need for Damascus to provide costly basic services. Implicitly, this contradicts the messaging of the recent refugee conference in Damascus and is a transparent recognition of the ground truths facing the beggared Syrian state. Further reductions to state subsidies and social spending can be expected as the state veers toward collapse.
3. Syria ratifies fourth Iranian credit line
Damascus: On 29 November, local media published heretofore unknown details concerning a new Iranian credit line for Syria, the fourth such agreement designed to boost Iran’s exports, prop up Damascus, and bind the nations together. The amended $1 billion credit line was originally drafted in 2015, but it was reportedly not ratified until 22 October 2020. The instrument comes in the form of letters of credit for service contracts with Iranian vendors, to be repaid at a 3.5 percent annual interest rate. Contracts will reportedly last from one to seven years. The Central Bank of Syria will pay back the loans in semi-annual financing, while the Ministry of Finance will act as guarantor through unspecified assets.
In the short term, a cash injection can be expected to boost Syria’s depleted foreign reserves, an issue that has come into the spotlight as the exchange value of the Syrian pound has bottomed-out near historic lows. However, the long-term prospectus is less encouraging from the viewpoint of Damascus. Syria will be on the hook for $1 billion, to be paid back in euros, which, like all foreign currencies, are in short supply inside Syria. The country risks getting caught in a debt trap, and it is unclear how the Ministry of Finance has collateralized the considerable obligations. In the interim, Syria and Iran will continue to pursue bilateral trade, including through a newly created barter system and a joint chamber of commerce (see: Syria Update 16 November 2020 and Syria Update 2 November 2020). Bartering may level-off imbalances for goods that Syria itself does not produce, but it will also create upward pressure on market prices without the benefit of generating foreign revenues. Stopgap economic measures will help Syria weather the storm, but they are no substitute for sustainable, organic trade of which Syria is now bereft.
4. New fuel distributor in Idleb to complement Watad, but not compete
Sarmada, Idleb governorate: On 30 November, media sources reported that fuel distributor Kaf Commercial Company opened its first gas station in Sarmada in northwestern Idleb governorate. The station offered three types of fuel at prices fractionally cheaper than the market rate: gasoline at 4.69 Turkish lira, diesel at 4.60 Turkish lira, and industrial fuel at 3.94 Turkish lira. Moreover, it distributed hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel at no cost to IDPs. According to media sources, the company is owned by Abu Adelrahman Zirbeh, a prominent local business figure affiliated with Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). Zirbeh also owns Watad Petroleum Company, which has monopolized the fuel trade in northwest Syria since its establishment three years ago. Notably, local sources indicate that the gas station is built on two land parcels owned by the Salvation Government’s Ministry of Endowments and the Ministry of Transport, which further strengthens the case that Kaf is linked to the Salvation Government and, through it, to HTS.
Pain at the pump
That Watad and Kaf are under the same ownership suggests little change will come to the rigged fuel market in northwest Syria. Kaf will give the illusion of fair market competition, but Watad will likely remain the dominant actor in the sector. Kaf was established more than one year ago, and its activities to date have been limited to supplying fuel in small quantities, and prior to its entry into consumer fuel distribution, it reportedly purchased fuel from Watad itself. Kaf’s apparent expansion may be a response to popular criticism of HTS and Watad as a result of their harmful monopolization of the fuel trade and for manipulating prices. In that respect, the initiative is proof that HTS remains sensitive to public criticism as it seeks to pacify the local population. The mechanics of these efforts are elaborate and include: ostensibly breaking Watad’s monopoly, decreasing prices, distributing free fuel for IDPs, and appointing administrative staff who are neither from Sarmada nor directly linked to HTS. Nonetheless, at best, the appearance of Kaf will turn a monopoly into a duopoly. Meaningful change is not on the cards as HTS seeks to retain its grip over the fuel trade, which is a load-bearing pillar of its civil operation, alongside electricity provision and crossing management.
5. Opposition shakeup amid regional rapprochement on Syria
Various Locations: On 30 November, Khaled Mahameed, the former number two on the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), stated during an interview with Al-Arabiya TV that a new Syrian opposition political body will soon be established. According to Mahameed, the entity will work independently from regional agendas through the “revolutionary youth from inside Syria,” and will take steps to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Mahameed’s statements were deliberately vague and noncommittal. They should not be read in isolation from potentially significant regional and Syrian political developments over the past month. Perhaps the most notable of these is the popular outrage directed at the Syrian opposition through the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces following the announcement of the controversial, now-halted, High Commission for Elections (see: Syria Update 30 November 2020). Simultaneously, the fourth session of the Syrian Constitutional Committee concluded in Geneva, once again without yielding significant progress.
The Syrian chessboard
The emergence of a new platform would be a further stride in the evolution of the Syrian opposition, which has grasped for relevance amid the armed opposition’s marginalization and the deadlock in the Geneva-track constitutional process. Seldom have Syrian opposition platforms operated independently. That such an initiative would emerge now beggars belief. Whether the platform will materialize at all remains an open question. The ostensible platform’s composition and other important details, such as its potential location, remain unclear. Within the opposition, some have speculated that it may spring from the nascent — and serially unsuccessful — attempts to unify the remains of southern Syria’s former armed opposition and negotiation factions.
The potential emergence of such a body coincides with, and may be a product of, a subtle but consistent drift in regional geopolitics concerning Syria, including maneuvering by UAE and Saudi Arabia to build influence over Syria’s future trajectory, including by countering Iran’s regional influence and confronting Turkey. To that end, Mahameed, an Emirates-linked businessman, has been viewed as an important intermediary for the UAE, although he also played a key role as a go-between for Russia and reconciling opposition factions in southern Syria in 2018. If Mahameed does play a role in an emergent platform, it may well become a vector of UAE influence. Greater Emirati and Saudi influence over the nominally independent wings of the Syrian opposition would come as a challenge to Turkey, which plays a strong role behind crucial opposition governance and political entities. Shaping the High Negotiations Committee is theoretically possible through tweaks to existing Turkish-backed blocs, but re-engaged Gulf monarchies may prefer to boost others such as the Cairo and Moscow platforms — or an altogether new platform. International jockeying around the Syrian opposition, however, will not take a straight line. Possible bilateral Saudi-Turkish rapprochement is believed to be a factor in Riyadh’s reported recent decision to cut its support for the Self-Administration, a concession to Ankara’s antagonism toward the Self-Administration.
6. Syrian government launches email service
Various Locations: On 24 November, the Syrian government National Agency for Network Services (NANS) launched a trial promoting a free domestic email service, claiming “it is more secure and safer than the foreign email service providers.” The notice stated that the service “will be officially launched to all Syrians after evaluating the trial period.”
We’ve got your mail
Although the service has been pitched as a domestic alternative to Western-owned platforms, it is a trojan horse for state surveillance, and it invites greater intrusion into Syrians’ domestic communications and contacts abroad. NANS will be a vital part of what cyber analysts have described as a Syrian state “information bank” compiling digital records of sensitive and potentially compromising material on Syrians. The service is hosted on a local network administered by the Syrian government without encrypted or secure internet protocols such as HTTP and FTP, meaning that access to and from external networks can be controlled, while state security actors will have full access to data, such as users’ personal information, phone records, contacts, and the contents of emails. In addition to digital security concerns, the service’s fundamental operation is also in doubt. Throughout the conflict, the Syrian government has been supported by an adept and capable phalanx of supporters online, but the state itself lacks the infrastructure, technical expertise, and financial resources to maintain a genuinely innovative online project, particularly in the fast-evolving digital sphere.
The Open Source Annex highlights key media reports, research, and primary documents that are not examined in the Syria Update. For a continuously updated collection of such records, searchable by geography, theme, and conflict actor, and curated to meet the needs of decision-makers, please see COAR’s comprehensive online search platform, Alexandrina, at the link below.
Note: These records are solely the responsibility of their creators. COAR does not necessarily endorse — or confirm — the viewpoints expressed by these sources.
What does it Say? The co-chair of the Self-Administration health directorate, Jowan Mustafa, stated that the entity has not yet been promised a delivery of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Reading Between the Lines: The statement comes amid a spike in COVID-19 cases in the northeast, which prompted a regional lockdown. The statement is likely an attempt to generate international support for the Self-Administration to secure access to a vaccine, given the likelihood that the Government of Syria will prioritize its own access.
Source: North Press Agency
Date: 1 December 2020
What does it Say? Shafiq Dayoub has been appointed Syria’s ambassador to Iran after serving as chargé d’affaires in Jordan. Dayoub had good relationships with Jordanian government officials, and he consistently advocated for and facilitated refugee return to Syria.
Reading Between the Lines: Dayoub’s appointment comes shortly after the selection of Faysal Mekdad as Syrian Foreign Minister. Given the institutional nature of Syrian rule, few major changes can be expected.
Date: 26 November 2020
What does it Say? Taiwan recently donated $500,000 for education in northeast Syria. The contribution, through the NGO Injaz, is to rehabilitate water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities at schools, winterize classrooms, and provide remedial education to displaced children who do not have access to formal education.
Reading Between the Lines: The donation likely has wider political dimensions, particularly given Taiwan’s uneasy relationship, which places it squarely between China and the U.S. Notably, Taiwan is a part of the U.S.-led international coalition against ISIS and was praised by the U.S. State Department after the donation.
Source: The Syria Report
Date: 2 December 2020
What Does it Say? The article asserts that NATO’s reluctance to take decisive actions in Syria, including building a unified front alongside Europe, has weakened Western leverage overall.
Reading Between the Lines: The West has failed to navigate the evolving Syria context as the influence of the armed and political opposition continue to diminish. However, the argument that a uniform Western front designed to leverage aid and reconstruction funding as the spearpoint of a political campaign to pressure Damascus into meaningful reform is dubious. That a political process will achieve where intense, albeit unfocused, military support failed, strains credibility.
Source: ETANA via Middle East Institut
Date: 20 November 2020
What Does it Say? The report explores the holistic decline in Syrian state budgets over the course of the conflict. Nortably, the 8.5 trillion SYP ($2.7 billion) 2021 budget represents a 70 percent decline in per capita allocations since 2011.
Reading Between the Lines: Budgetary constraints are no secret in Syria, where the regime’s resilience stands in stark contrast to the erosion, atrophy, and collapse of the state.
Source: Atlantic Council
Date: 1 December 2020
What Does it Say? The Muslim Brotherhood has objected to proposed formation of an opposition-aligned commission to participate in Syrian elections, stating that the opposition must not divert from the core goals of the original uprising.
Reading Between the Lines: Like other factions across the opposition spectrum, the Brotherhood was incensed by the commission, which many have interpreted as an internal power play within the opposition or an inadvertent legitimization of Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Source: The Syrian Observer
Date: 1 December 2020
What Does it Say? Foreigners formerly affiliated with ISIS are using online messaging platforms to raise money in order to pay the exorbitant costs associated with fleeing to Idleb or abroad to Turkey.
Reading Between the Lines: The existence of such a fundraising pathway raises grave concerns for the continuation of international extremist financing networks and for the perverse incentive structures pushing individuals to exhibit extremist sympathies online.
Date: 1 December 2020
What Does it Say? The formation of a new Syrian Chamber of Commerce in September and October has seen the solidifying rise of new business class with close ties to the ruling regime, including many who have profited from the conflict.
Reading Between the Lines: The election signals that war profiteers, including those affiliated with the 4th Division and other pro-government militias, can wash their public images as the political economy of Syria changes in accordance with the changing conflict.
Source: European University Institute
Date: 13 November 2020
What Does it Say? Protests erupted in Shadadah in Al-Hasakeh governorate after the SDF wrongfully detained a young man from the town and refused to release him.
Reading Between the Lines: While Arab tribal communities in Deir-ez-Zor are often seen as the bellwethers of the Self-Administration’s popular acceptance, Shadadah exhibits many of the same characteristics. Unrest there is a signal that social discord in the northeast is more widespread than is often understood.
Date: 30 November 2020
What Does it Say? On 28 November, the Salvation Government resigned after a year in power, with Ali Keda standing down as its leader. Shortly after, the Shura Council convened an emergency meeting and re-elected Keda to lead the Salvation Government for the second time.
Reading Between the Lines: The Salvation Government’s resignation is a routine annual occurrence. Significant changes are unlikely.
Source: Enab Baladi
Date: 1 December 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.