Syria Update

14 December 2020
Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 47_Cover
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Al-Assad alienates minority supporters in a bid for the Sunni Arab majority

In Depth Analysis

On 7 December, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad delivered a 75 minute-long speech to senior Syrian religious authorities and Islamic scholars during a meeting convened in Damascus by the Religious Endowments Ministry. Like nearly all of Al-Assad’s speeches, the address was far-ranging, and it should be viewed as an expression of state policy. It touched on subjects as diverse as neoliberalism, secularism, religious extremism, terrorism, and the immiseration of the Arabo-Islamic world, evinced by the reversals of fortune seen in modern Iraq, Yemen, Gaza, and Syria. Al-Assad’s most consistent focus, however, was the nature of the Syrian state — particularly its Arab and Islamic identity. In what may be seen as a consequential articulation of state religion, Al-Assad sought to emphasize the state’s special relationship with Sunni Islamic religious institutions and to reframe it as being unapologetically Arab. However, overtly courting conservative Sunnis and cultivating an Arab identity has already ignited public furor over the nature of the Syrian state, and it risks alienating the many minority groups that have been the base of the state’s ideologically diverse coalition.

What did Al-Assad say?

Al-Assad’s speech entailed a two-pronged appeal: first, to reject violent extremism; second, to vie for religious conservatives’ support for a distinctly Syrian, state-led school of Sunni Islam. In the first instance, Al-Assad denounced what he described as Turkish President Recep Tayeb Erdogan’s reliance on Sunni Islam as the basis of a regional power play. He also rejected what he characterized as Islamophobia in France. However, Al-Assad also called for restraint in response to perceived offenses such as caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and the recent frictions between Islam and France’s laïcité (secularism). In effect, Al-Assad warned that violent responses to perceived slights taint Islam’s image abroad. He also declared that violent extremism, particularly in the West, has “no connection” to Islam but instead results from what he described as a corrupt bargain between Western states and Gulf petro-monarchies that have evangelized an arch-conservative “Wahabi” vision of the faith.

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 47_Cover
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Above all, the speech was a bid for the support of Syria’s Sunni Muslim conservatives. The president portrayed Syria as beset by “waves” of crisis that it can navigate only through reliance on faith. Al-Assad directly linked Islam and Arab identity and described them both as a foundation of Syria’s national identity. At times, the discourse devolved into a personal appeal that framed the clerical class — both men and women — as critical to the nation’s survival, noting, “you were a rearguard for the army.” Al-Assad also adopted some of the conservatives’ reactionary talking points, leading to criticism of what he described as the societal consequences of “neoliberalism.” Al-Assad stated, “the movement now assaulting Islamic societies is neoliberalism, which few people know about.” In a seeming non-sequitur, Al-Assad ridiculed gender dysphoria as “a strange thing” and a malign “innovation” that contradicts religious faith. He also claimed that “neoliberalism” promoted drugs, “and you are now able, in some places, to order types of bread flavored with these drugs.”

Frankenstein state

In practical terms, the speech should be viewed as an articulation of the prevailing sentiment at the highest level of Syrian state, notwithstanding the speech’s many contradictions and frequent distortions. Al-Assad’s words should not always be interpreted literally, but his pronouncements must be taken seriously. While the Syrian president’s shifting discourse likely has many causes, the inconsistencies are an inevitable consequence of Syria’s ideological drift and the state’s reconstitution to meet the shifting demands among various alienated constituencies. Al-Assad himself came into office as a champion of liberalization policies. Among them were trade arrangements that enriched wealthy merchants linked to the regime, while domestic manufacturers suffered. The alienation of the Syrian industrial class, including the old guard of Aleppo — and the masses of workers who lost out as a result — was among the factors that accelerated the uprising in 2011.

Religious authorities attend Al-Assad’s address. Images courtesy of SANA.

At other times, particularly during the protracted conflict, Al-Assad has cast himself as the protector of ethnic and religious minorities. If the vision laid out in this speech is realized, it would entail a large-scale reconfiguration of the social identity of the Syrian state. Remaking Syria in the image of an inchoate Sunni Arab majority would risk alienating both deftly courted wartime constituencies and those who are already suspicious of Damascus, including Kurds, Assyrians, liberals, women, Christians, Druze, and even Al-Assad’s own Alawite community. Already, the speech has prompted a rare public conversion on the identity of the Syrian state. The minister of religious endowments has seized the initiative to deliver a speech emphasizing Syria’s Arab and Islamic identity, a drive that clashes unambiguously with the vision of traditional secularists and liberals.

All told, co-opting Sunni religious authorities is nothing new in Syria. The creation of the Damascus International Islamic Center for Countering Terrorism and Extremism is the clearest proof of the state’s ambition to set the metes and bounds of acceptable religious discourse (see: Syria Update 23-29 May 2019). Efforts are also underway to co-opt women religious figures. The stepped-up authority over religious institutions may be a hail-mary attempt to signal to the West that whatever disagreements exist concerning the nature of the Syrian state and Al-Assad himself, there is common ground on issues of extremism. Specifically casting shade on Gulf states — and the regional influence paid for in petrodollars in particular — is also a signal that Damascus has not forgotten the glut of foreign funding that poured into armed opposition groups from Gulf donors.

Yet the core dimension of the speech is domestic. It stands as evidence that the ideological lodestar of the modern Syrian state may be shifting, particularly given Syria’s own changing domestic landscape and the evolving regional climate over normalization with Israel and social liberalization. To date, adaptability has enabled the regime to navigate the protracted conflict, but the latest speech signals a risky gambit to cashier minorities in favor of majority support.

Whole of Syria Review

Syria Update Vol. 3 No. 47_WebMap

1. To parry Turkish attacks at Ein Issa, SDF turns to Russia, again

Ein Issa, Ar-Raqqa governorate: On 8 December, representatives of Russia and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) met in the Russian military base south of Ein Issa to discuss the recent military escalation in the area (see: Syria Update 7 December 2020). Media sources reported that Russia once again proposed that the SDF handover administrative control of Ein Issa to the Government of Syria and allow the establishment of a government-controlled security square in the town center. At the time of writing, media and local sources indicated that the SDF had not accepted the Russian proposal but have reached a bilateral agreement to establish three joint Russia-SDF military posts on the northern, eastern, and western fronts of Ein Issa, to cement Russia’s presence and foil a potential Turkish incursion into the town. Neither the SDF nor the Government of Syria has publicly commented on this possibility. However, on 9 December, Government of Syria military reinforcements were deployed to reinforce the Russian military base south of the town and other government positions in its vicinity.

The lesser of two evils

If verified, the agreement to entrench Russian forces around Ein Issa will impart stability to the SDF-held community, which has frequently been the locus of military friction between the SDF and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), particularly in the past two weeks (see: Syria Update 7 December 2020). A concession to Russia forestalls a large-scale military incursion from the Turkish-held north. It does so at a moderate price that is more symbolic than actual, yet it brings with it no long-term guarantees of security. Russian forces garrisoned around the community can be withdrawn with little notice, a threat that has loomed over other northeast communities under Russia’s security umbrella.

At the time of writing, sources differ concerning the putative handover of Self-Administration civil institutions in Ein Issa to the Syrian government. It now appears likely that the Self-Administration will bow to Moscow’s pressure by surrendering direct control of institutions and tolerating the creation of a Syrian government security enclave in the community. Turkey’s demonstrated readiness to escalate at nearby lines of contact makes this possibility more likely. Despite changing patterns of civilian and commercial movement across northeast Syria, Ein Issa remains an important node in transit networks and the region’s overall administrative connectivity. Counter-intuitively, were Ein Issa of lesser importance, the SDF would perhaps be more willing to wage a longshot fight to keep out both Turkey and Damascus. Admitting Syrian government forces in some capacity will nurse the strategic relations with the Syrian government at little real cost to the Self-Administration.

As it stands, Ein Issa may be too important to the Self-Administration to risk losing outright, likely factored in the decision to meet Moscow at least halfway. Ein Issa houses an important electricity substation that receives power from the Tishreen Hydroelectric station and feeds it onwards to other areas in northeast Syria. Keeping Ein Issa out of Ankara’s reach avoids replicating the Alok water station scenario in which the Turkish-backed SNA controls the upstream water supply to Self-Administration-controlled portions of Al-Hasakeh governorate, which it has repeatedly cut off in a bid to pressure the SDF (see: Syria Update 31 August 2020). Entrusting Ein Issa to the Syrian government — under Moscow’s watch — is a more reliable promise of sustainable electricity provision.

Perhaps the most pertinent unknown is how Turkey will interpret the Self-Administration’s acquiescence. Competing theories are in circulation. The hand-over of Ein Issa will represent pragmatic success in the eyes of Ankara. However, it is also possible Turkey and its affiliated local Syrian forces will look for other entry points to Syria’s northeast, namely Ain Al Arab (Kobani) and Darbasiyah. Despite reports of a Turkish buildup outside Ain Al Arab, a concentrated international presence will seemingly prevent Turkey from running roughshod over the SDF there. It noted that French interests in Ain Al Arab include both aid activities and a French military installation near the city. Franco-Turkish relations have soured, but a direct confrontation in Syria would be a pitched escalation. Likewise, Darbasiyah, located on the Turkish-Syrian border east of the Operation Peace Spring zone, is within the orbit of U.S.-led international coalition operations. A confrontation with U.S. forces is not impossible, but it would be unlikely to follow the script set in October 2019.

Meanwhile, Turkey must also keep watch on the western frontlines, where the roles are reversed as it plays defense against Syrian government attacks. The epicenter of current escalation is the SNA-controlled Jabal Al Zawyeh, which remains heated as it comes under heavy shelling from the Government of Syria forces. Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes continue to target other communities in northwestern Idleb governorate. Syrian government and Russian forces are seemingly agreed upon the priority to recapture Jabal Al Zawyeh, which is among the most strategically valuable redoubts of Turkish control in all of northwest Syria. It is also the largest chunk of territory held by the Syrian opposition south of the M4 corridor, leaving it isolated and potentially vulnerable. Newtonian logic governs the area. The harder Syrian government forces have pushed to recapture it, the more aggressively Turkey has dug in its heels to push back.

2. Damascus said to introduce $100 fee waiver for returnees

Various Locations: After rumors circulated concerning changes to administrative processes for Syrian returnees, on 7 December, media sources reported that the Government of Syria had waived the requirement that Syrians returning from abroad exchange $100 for Syrian pounds at the border. Critically, however, the waiver applies only to returning Syrians deemed incapable of shouldering the burden, a decision that must be approved by the Minister of Interior directly. The exchange rule requiring Syrians to exchange $100, promulgated on 7 July by the Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, reportedly drew in more than $1.4 million in cash in August alone (see: Syria Update 7 September 2020).

No cash, no problem?

Authorities have yet to verify that waivers will be offered at all. Yet even if the exception is theoretically available, most Syrians’ hopes of benefitting will be dead on arrival. The requirement that approval come from a government minister snubs out any prospect that it will be widely available, even to the Syrians now facing increasing pressure to return — particularly from Lebanon, where tensions are intensifying with the approaching deadline for a renewal of subsidies on essential goods. There is little reason to expect a genuine effort by the Syrian government to walk back the exchange requirement, which is, at root, a revenue-generating mechanism allowing the state to profit from arbitrage through its manipulation of various parallel exchange rates (see: Syria Update 7 December 2020). At the time of writing, the market SYP exchange rate hovers around 2,755 SYP/USD, up from 2,180 SYP/USD in early September. However, returnees are required to exchange the $100 at the official bank rate, meaning they receive only half the real market value for the dollars they are forced to hand over. Moreover, the news contradicts an earlier decision by the Director of Immigration and Passports, Naji Numair, stating that individuals unable to provide the $100 fee for returning to Syria are required to call on their relatives inside Syria to obtain the needed cash. As such, it remains unclear whether the recent news has any basis in fact at all. All told, it is not expected to seriously change the decision points facing returnees.

3. Al-Assad relative’s prison release sparks Alawite anger

Lattakia city, Lattakia governorate: A rising tide of popular discontent with the privilege and impunity of Syria’s ruling elite — even among the Syrian Alawite community — has crested with recent reports that Suleiman Al-Assad, a distant cousin of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad,  has been released from prison and is now walking free, despite a 20-year sentence handed down for killing a highly decorated Alawite Air Force colonel in a road rage incident in 2015. There are some indications that the younger Al-Assad had enjoyed considerable freedom of movement or had been confined to house arrest, rather than prison, in the intervening five years.

Mob rules

The apparent release of Suleiman Al-Assad is widely seen as proof apparent that Syria’s ruling regime enjoys unchecked impunity despite the costs shouldered by its Alawite base. That much has been evident throughout the conflict. More notable yet is how the event casts light on the deep social tensions in Lattakia and within the Alawite community itself. The Air Force colonel’s 2015 death sparked outrage among Alawites, who were straining to support the Syrian government’s war effort. The flippant killing illustrated the extent to which the Alawite community’s relationship with the Al-Assad regime is an unequal partnership in which the community at large bears significant costs to protect the entitlements of the few (see: Syria Update 19 October 2020). Suleiman Al-Assad’s release has prompted criticism among the Sunni community too. In 2014, Suleiman Al-Assad reportedly led deadly assaults on Sunni neighborhoods in Lattakia in a bout of misdirected revenge over the death of his father, Hilal Al-Assad, a National Defense Forces commander. No note, Al-Assad emerged from his ostensible imprisonment noticeably more corpulent than when he entered, a glaring contradiction when held against the many examples of emaciated, underfed, and abused detainees. Coupled with evidence like the growing narcotics trade, Suleiman Al-Assad’s release is indicative of the gangsterism that is taking root as the country’s formal institutions weaken and become concentrated in the hands of the connected few (see: Syria Update 30 November).

4. New reconciliation agreement in Dar’a city

Dar’a city, Dar’a governorate: On 3 December, the Dar’a Central Committee and the Syrian government security committee reached a new reconciliation agreement for Dar’a city, under Russian auspices, according to local sources and media reports. The agreement differs little in its terms from the July 2018 reconciliation deal that signaled the effective capitulation of the local armed opposition. The settlement stipulates the handover of weapons and ammunition. It requires that wanted individuals have six days from the signing of the agreement to present themselves at a center established by the Syrian army in Dar’a. Procedurally, however, several changes are noted. Whereas the 2018 settlement was negotiated with one security branch, the new deal was overseen by the Syrian judiciary and approved by the Justice Ministry. It should also be noted that Russian forces were involved in the settlement agreement.

Groundhog day in Dar’a city

The deal breaks no new ground in the pacification of southern Syria, despite the inclusion of further appendages of the Syrian state and security apparatus. The Government of Syria has made assurances that miscommunications among security branches were to blame for the failures to implement the 2018 agreement, but this is doubtful. The deal fell apart not due to the lack of comprehensive inclusion among government entities but because of more fundamental credibility gaps for state institutions as a whole. The Syrian state failed to live up to service provision guarantees, while the unresolved status of detainees and checkpoint arrests have continued to inflame anti-government sentiments. These realities have damaged Russian prestige as well, including its ill-fated attempts to act as guarantor in the area. This breakdown can be seen as a factor in Russia’s decision to build its own power base through the 5th Corps, which largely circumvents the Syrian state. Notably, the new agreement applies to Dar’a city only, meaning that other areas will remain in limbo. As a result, implementers should expect that fluid security conditions will persist for the foreseeable future, although a perceived failure of the new agreement could prompt a violent backlash in the near term.

5. Ar-Ra’ee’s inclusive urban plan is the first of its kind in Syria

Ar-Ra’ee, Aleppo governorate: On 2 December, media sources reported that the Ar-Ra’ee local council had amended the pre-2011 expansion plan following consultation with local residents, making it the first time that participatory planning has been actively carried forward in wartime Syria. The regulatory plan, which was confirmed by the council’s special office for studies and projects last October, will cover territories located east of the city, adjacent to the eastern ring road that links Al-Bab city with the Ar-Ra’ee border crossing. According to the local council, the decision to confine the expansion eastward was made to avoid impinging on agricultural lands located to the west and south of the city. Compensation mechanisms for those standing to lose a portion of their property are to be determined once the detailed plan is issued, with construction works due to finish the following year, one member of the local council has stated.

A potential blueprint for inclusive planning

The steps taken by the Ar-Ra’ee local council furnish a potential blueprint for inclusive and participatory urban projects elsewhere in Syria. Since its establishment in 2016, Ar-Ra’ee local council has made strides to address HLP issues in the city. These have included reasserting its control over formerly state-owned lands that were seized by opposition factions following the city’s capture from ISIS in 2016. Yet the Ar-Ra’ee model is not free from heady considerations of its own. Turkey has paid the area special attention because of its significant population of ethnic Turkman, as well as its strategic location on the Turkish frontier, adjacent to one of the main commercial gateways connecting Turkey and northern Syria. Although ambiguous, Turkey’s long-term ambitions for the community — whether to claim it outright or trade it away for leverage against Damascus — should remove doubt concerning altruistic motives.

Housing, land, and property (HLP) issues have been one of the most fraught dimensions of the Syria conflict, particularly in areas that witnessed large-scale physical destruction and forced displacement. That the Syrian government may weaponize urban plans to alter former opposition communities’ socio-economic status, or as a tool to enrich cronies, are among the foremost risks facing donor-funded shelter, light infrastructure, or rehabilitation activities. That said, risks exist in other areas as well. Urban expansion in opposition-controlled areas has taken arbitrary forms, especially given the limited capacity of local councils to manage the processes.

6. Sudan to cease visa-free entry for Syrians

Khartoum, Sudan: On 9 December, Sudan’s Ministry of the Interior issued a statement announcing the end of visa-free entry for Syrians. General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, the head of the country’s transitional authority, the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, issued a sovereign decree requiring Syrians to obtain an entry visa to Sudan and directed the interior minister and the responsible authorities at the ministry to implement the decision.

Sudan, once a new beginning for many Syrians, is at an end

The decision effectively cuts off Syrians from accessing what was once among the most important and critical waypoints for onward travel. The Syrian community in Sudan numbers approximately 100,000, but this belies its importance as the main station for many more who used it as a waypoint to escape Syria before fleeing elsewhere, including by taking to the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe from the Libyan coast. Sudan had been among the most accessible nations for Syrians, allowing visa-free entry and imposing few restrictions for Syrian passport-holders. However, conditions for Syrians in Sudan worsened in a crackdown in September 2019, which targeted irregular laborers, signaling potential changes following the ouster of longtime former president Omar Al-Bashir.

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.

The Difficult Normalisation of Relations between Arab Countries and Bashar al-Assad

What Does it Say? The article surveys various papers by Middle East experts on the motives of Arab countries wishing to normalize relations with Damascus, the potential return of Syria to the Arab League, and the influence that external actors and the COVID-19 pandemic exert on this process.

Reading Between the Lines: The papers reviewed in this article show how the lack of a regional consensus on Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League and its political and economic isolation by the U.S. and the EU are hampering the progress of Arab states normalizing ties with Syria.

Source: German Institute for International and Security Affairs

Language: English

Date: November 2020

Child recruitment casts shadow over Syrian Kurds’ push for global legitimacy

What Does it Say? The article examines youth recruitment by Kurdish forces armed groups in northeast Syria, which highlights both protection concerns and the larger initiative to stabilize northeast Syria vis-à-vis Turkey.

Reading Between the Lines: There are no formal estimates for the number of children recruited in northeast Syria, but the issue remains a key sticking point that dogs the SDF persistently.

Source: Al-Monitor

Language: English

Date: 7 December 2020

The Autonomous Administration launches new reforms to placate tribal elements

What Does it Say? The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political arm of the SDF, announced a series of reforms aimed at increasing political inclusivity and economic conditions in Arab tribal areas of the Self-Administration. 

Reading Between the Lines: The reforms come as a response to a series of meetings that followed increased hostilities between the SDF and Arab tribes in Deir-ez-Zor governorate. The Self-Administration has long been bedeviled by Arab tribal governance, though it needs a more unified rule to strengthen its bargaining position against Damascus.

Source: Syria Direct

Language: English 

Date: 29 November 2020

Post-Reconciliation Rural Damascus: Are Local Communities Still Represented?

What Does it Say? A comparative study of intermediaries and post-reconciliation realities in six different areas in Rural Damascus by focusing on the roles of social actors.

Reading Between the Lines: Intermediaries, including religious figures, military leaders, civil society actors, and businessmen are critical actors whose influence is poorly understood, particularly given the highly localized nature of their influence.

Source: European University Institute

Language: English

Date: 27 November 2020

Outgoing Syria envoy reflects on Turkey, the Kurds and what everyone got wrong

What Does it Say? In a wide-ranging interview, James Jeffrey, outgoing U.S. envoy for Syria, discusses the U.S. intervention and the various parties involved in the conflict. 

Reading Between the Lines: Jeffery is often frank, but not always circumspect or realistic. Of particular interest is his description of of U.S. strategy: to topple the Al-Assad government by forcing Iran and Russia to bear the costs of supporting a pariah state.

Source: Al-Monitor

Language: English

Date: 9 December 2020

According to ‘Caesar’, Education is not a Humanitarian Issue

What Does it Say?  The article casts doubt on the humanitarian exemptions to U.S. sanctions enforcement, particularly for online education access. 

Reading Between the Lines: Over-compliance remains a key complication due to U.S. sanctions. Despite the assurances that waivers would prevent unintended harms, exemptions are often costly or difficult to acquire.

Source: People’s Will Party

Language: English

Date: 10 December 2020

Pity the nation: Assessing a half century of Assadist rule

What Does it Say? The article assesses the impact of 50 years of Al-Assad family rule in Syria, during which time its economy has drifted into stagnation, with the country witnessing increasing poverty and a growing gap between rich and poor, on top of brutalizing sectarian conflict. 

Reading Between the Lines: While there are numerous causes of Syria’s slide into collapse, the article pays special attention to the reality that state spending priorities, including security and corrupt deals that favor those with close ties to the government, have contributed to Syria’s immiseration.

Source: Atlantic Council

Language: English

Date: 10 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.