10 Years On: Adrift, the Syrian Aid Response Awaits a Paradigm Shift

March 22, 2021

10 Years On: Adrift, the Syrian Aid Response Awaits a Paradigm Shift

March 22, 2021

Table of Contents


In Depth Analysis


The anniversary of the Syrian uprising, often reckoned from 15 March 2011, witnessed myriad preliminary steps from the international community that signal emerging priorities as the deadlocked conflict drags on. Last week’s Syria Update examined the state of the aid response and how development and humanitarian approaches should adapt to hard realities in the country (see: Syria Update 15 March 2011). This week, we delve into trends shaping the policy and political space around Syria, as the armed conflict remains — for now — stubbornly frozen. Two diverging trends exist in the international community’s approach to Damascus. On the one hand are a growing number of accountability measures, including political pressure, legal challenges, and economic sanctions. These are approaches led by the U.S. and Europe that primarily aim to hold the Government of Syria to account, and they are gaining speed, even though significant questions over efficacy remain unanswered. These approaches are set against a nascent effort led by Russia to usher the Government of Syria through a period of international censure and cement Moscow’s own interests in the country while growing its diplomatic profile in the wider region.

Whole of Syria Update

10 Years On: Adrift, the Syrian Aid Response Awaits a Paradigm Shift

A full decade on, the international community’s fundamental political objectives in Syria have changed little, if at all. Now, as in 2011, the underlying goal of nearly all international political approaches to Syria remains President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power. In recent years, a small (but growing) clique of European and Middle Eastern states has advocated varying degrees of engagement with the Government of Syria with al-Assad at its head, yet they are outliers. According to the position of most Western states, al-Assad’s personal rule is among the root causes of the conflict, and so long as the root causes of Syria’s unrest are left unaddressed, re-engagement with Damascus is generally seen as politically impossible.

Although military pressure via a Western-backed armed opposition is no longer on the table, a stick-and-carrot approach aiming to achieve a political transition in Syria remains pervasive. The sticks variously aim to build “leverage” — primarily through political isolation, economic deprivation, and sanctions. However, because such levers have little or no direct impact on the Assad regime’s chief interests, the Syrian President has proven remarkably resilient. Meanwhile, the Syrian Government’s military successes have enabled Damascus to spurn nearly all concessions demanded by the West. Carrots include piecemeal relaxation of these conditions and future reconstruction aid, a lifeline that has been promised to the Syrian populace, once conditions such as a “credible political process” have been set in motion. Certainly, al-Assad would prefer to mollify the still-restive population through improved services and better state functionality, but concerns over popular well-being are secondary to his own political survival.

If the conflict has taught anything, it is that rapid, unanticipated change is always a possibility. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to imagine additional years of protracted crisis in Syria. A newly announced Russian-Turkish-Qatari dialogue platform is merely the latest in a long line of improbable diplomatic overtures in Syria, none of which has brought the nation closer to a resolution to the conflict. That said, humanitarian, development, and stabilisation actors focusing on Syria enjoy comparatively greater latitude to achieve positive outcomes than these disconcerting conditions would suggest. Without compromising on overarching political positions or normalising with the Syrian Government, aid actors can continue to make progress on urgent objectives, among which is the imperative to prevent worsening human misery as Syria drifts further toward becoming the nexus of regional instability. The export of violence and further emigration from Syria remain concerns that can and must be addressed. As the Syria crisis drags on, it will be vital for donors and aid actors to take a long-term view, in the process identifying concrete objectives and seeking out additional entry points to empower local civil society.

For the aid response, evolution not revolution

Regrettably, the international aid response to Syria has been slow to evolve to keep step with changing conditions on the ground. Access, which has shrunk considerably since 2018, has remained a fixation among aid actors. The collapse of the cross-border response in central and southern Syria in 2018 has been cemented more recently by the closure of UN-designated cross-border access points. Now, a single crossing, Bab al-Hawa, is all that remains of the hard-won access that was once the linchpin of the international aid response. Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring has divided northeast Syria and complicated civilian mobility and aid implementation in the region, which is now arguably the focal point of a U.S.-led international agenda to pressure the Government of Syria by denying access to wheat and oil.

Equally vexing are legal and procedural barriers. Tightening sanctions regimes, especially the U.S. Caesar Act, have frozen private economic engagement in Syria (thus increasing the relative importance of aid as the Syrian economy languishes), while adding layers of compliance challenges. As elsewhere, aid activities across Syria have been beset by Covid-related impediments and associated adjustment costs over the past year. More fundamentally, donor fatigue has also grown, in part because of a widespread sense that the Government of Syria has achieved its main conflict aims and transformative change is now unlikely. Moreover, the economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has left overseas assistance in jeopardy globally. All the while, the world’s attention has drifted from Syria to other regional conflicts and cross-cutting global issues, including public health and pandemic response.

Justice interrupted

Given conditions such as these, it is not surprising that, increasingly, attention among donor governments and aid actors has settled on accountability, which has been mainstreamed as a component of donor-funded programs and is rapidly becoming normalised within foreign legal systems. On 4 March, the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it has requested “formal negotiations”, under the UN Convention Against Torture, to hold “Syria accountable for the countless human rights violations it has inflicted on the Syrian people since 2011.” This follows a similar move by the Netherlands, in September 2020. In late February 2021, Germany convicted a former Syrian Government intelligence officer, Eyad al-Gharib, for complicity in crimes against humanity, marking the first such conviction related to the Syria conflict. More recently, Britain’s Metropolitan Police has launched a preliminary investigation into Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad over charges that she has incited acts of terror.

While accountability actions such as these are encouraging, two main shortcomings are paramount. First, the barriers to legitimacy for accountability procedures are immense. A vast gulf separates local organisations — those whose buy-in is critical to the local acceptance of outcomes — and the foreign governments or international entities that have the power to muscle accountability onto the agenda. Syrian civil society organisations are also divided amongst themselves, not least because of the rifts between local entities and their elite counterparts with better funding, access, and outreach capacities. Delineating strategies, identifying priorities, coordinating among these players, and managing expectations over possible outcomes will be immensely challenging. This is made all the more difficult by the need to sift through the mountain of evidence of the crimes that have been committed throughout the conflict.

Second, although human rights and accountability initiatives are welcome additions to the overall Syria portfolio, they should not be seen as a substitute for programme implementation inside the country or targeting refugee populations and their increasingly desperate host communities. Punishing the perpetrators of violations is an important check against impunity, but it does little to address the immediate needs of Syrians themselves. The drift toward accountability is understandable, not least because it is among the only positive steps that international actors can take without running headlong into obstruction by the Government of Syria or Russia, its staunch defender at the United Nations Security Council. Regrettably, however, parallel advances in programme implementation, the evolution of donor objectives, and new approaches to operational procedures within the Syrian aid response have lagged. It is disheartening that few programmatic innovations have set in since the current status quo was cemented by the collapse of the southern Syria response in early 2018 (see: Syria Update 14-20 March 2019). Innovation on this front is now more important than ever.

In some respects, the Syria response is constrained most of all by its collective inability to articulate sustainable non-emergency approaches. Certainly, an emergency response capacity will retain an important place in the response’s toolkit, particularly given the risk of military offensive in northwest Syria, but longer-term thinking should be prioritised. The loss of direct access to areas that were once bastions of international support, such as opposition-held communities in central and southern Syria, presents aid actors with two realistic access options: to work via either grassroots and local civil society entities or through Damascus-registered NGOs and UN agencies. While the shortcomings of Damascus-based NGOs and UN agencies are widely recognised, localisation has not been employed on a large scale, despite (unfulfilled) international pledges and persistent calls to localise as a means of surmounting access challenges and empowering local civil society.

Happily, some effects of the conflict make localisation easier. The conflict has taken a heavy toll on the highly centralised Government of Syria state apparatus; locally, control has fragmented and decentralised. These processes manifest differently across Syrian communities, but the weakening of central authorities has, in general, left local economic and political actors with greater authority and more autonomy. As such, local actors answerable to their communities do continue to function as the dynamos powering community-centered aid work, rehabilitation, and development, albeit with limitations due to funding shortfalls and the threat of arbitrary security interference (see: ‘Arrested Development’: Rethinking Local Development in Syria).

Identifying entry points among such actors should be a priority for the international Syria response. To a large extent, entry points in Syrian civil society (both inside Syria and in the diaspora) and among healthcare workers, teachers, and other skilled technicians once supported by international donor-funded projects remain underutilised, particularly in Government of Syria areas (see: Function Over Form: Rethinking Civil Society in Government-held Syria and What Remains?: A Postmortem Analysis of the Cross-Border Response in Dar’a). Better-understanding the limitations and opportunities of partnership with actors such as these will be important starting points. Granular understanding of local context, conflict-sensitivity concerns, and unintended impacts will be critical to navigating this space. The process will be challenging. False starts can be expected. Donors should be prepared to suspend support if red lines are crossed. However, the willingness to suspend support is among the most powerful tools donors have to fend off interference.

In terms of programming, the understandable emphasis on hard infrastructure has obscured the potential for impactful programming focusing on soft services and repairing Syria’s tattered social fabric. Certainly, dismaying service gaps — in water, electricity, and other sectors — are found across Syria. However, programs designed to improve social cohesion should not be neglected, particularly given that social fractures are an underappreciated driver of displacement and barrier to return. While Syrians continue to cite security concerns as the primary driver of their displacement, the insecurity they are fleeing increasingly stems not necessarily from large-scale conflict, but from reprisal attacks, factional disputes, and the unchecked abuses of empowered local militias and the unreconstructed state security services. Some of these conditions are beyond the reach of donor-funded programming, yet others can be addressed.

Needs continue to grow

Although the underlying conflict in Syria has been frozen for some 12 months, socioeconomic conditions continue to deteriorate at a dizzying pace. The Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics estimates year-on-year inflation is between 200-300 percent. The Syrian pound has lost roughly 73 percent of its dollar value since March 2020, and it now trades at its lowest values ever. Syria’s economic fate is worryingly entangled with that of its once-vital economic lifeline, Lebanon, which is suffering crippling economic turmoil that, in turn, impedes Syria’s market access (see: Two Countries, One Crisis: The Impact of Lebanon’s Upheaval on Syria). So dire are food and agricultural livelihoods conditions that half of Syrian households spend three-quarters of their income, or more, on food, according to some estimates. In parallel, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a stress test of governments and health systems the world over; not surprisingly, Syrian institutions have been battered, and the pre-existing systemic fragilities that will outlast the COVID-19 crisis have been revealed (see: Syrian Public Health after COVID-19: Entry Points and Lessons Learned from the Pandemic Response).

Left unaddressed, grievances inside Syria will continue to fester. Despite pressures within places of asylum, voluntary refugee return will remain off the table so long as Syria remains a collapsing, insecure state (see: Syria Update 8 March 2021). Battle-hardened soldiers will continue to deploy to foreign battlegrounds, fostering a generation of Syrian mercenaries whose hopelessness is easily exploited by foreign recruiters. Such mobilisation risks intensifying other regional conflicts and will complicate aid, development, and stabilisation initiatives elsewhere — including in Libya and now, potentially, Yemen. Inside Syria, criminality has flourished under the auspices of an entitled criminal class. Extortion and petty crime are commonplace. Drug exports are now a major revenue stream that sustains the Assad regime and its closest allies. Left unchecked, Syrian narco-trafficking will increase the social costs and law enforcement burden borne by regional states that are already perilously fragile. Additionally, the lack of a definitive conclusion to the Syria crisis will further upend the international rules-based order. As such, there is ample cause for concern that, even at 10, the Syria crisis will generate new ways to challenge the international community. Above all, response actors must resist complacency. Although the main themes of the conflict are by now well-recognised, local needs and programming opportunities continue to evolve, and the need for new approaches has never been more urgent.

Whole Of Syria Review

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.

Report: Bashar and Asma Al-Assad Test Positive for COVID-19

Many Syrians doubt the claim, which has been stage-managed for maximum impact

Damascus: On 8 March, the Syrian Presidency published a statement claiming that President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, had tested positive for COVID-19 following PCR tests, after showing minor symptoms. The couple were in good health, state media reported, and would continue to work from isolation at home for two to three weeks. The couple urged Syrians to continue following precautionary and preventive measures. Syria has witnessed a reported surge in COVID-19 infections since mid-February but lockdown options remain limited due to the dire state of the economy and growing poverty, according to a member of the Government’s coronavirus advisory committee. This follows shortly after the Government of Syria initiated its COVID-19 vaccination drive on 1 March, targeting frontline healthcare workers, after Damascus received its first shipment of vaccines from an unnamed “friendly” country, according to state media. Neither the type nor the quantity of vaccines was specified.

The diagnoses raises doubts

The Assads’ positive PCR tests and the potential repercussions of this development are matters of great significance for the international community and the Syria aid response in particular. That said, many Syrians and observers of the conflict have vacillated between schadenfreude and outright disbelief at the reported diagnosis. Among other things, skeptics have questioned whether the announcement was designed to distract Syrians from the nation’s crushing economic situation, which is worse than at any time since the conflict started in 2011. It has also been speculated that the announcement was intended to soften al-Assad’s image as the 2021 presidential elections approach. It is notable that Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to review any request for assistance in treating the Assads, if such a request is made. This pledge can be interpreted as a sign of Russia’s willingness to step up its support, a relevant question given upcoming elections and long-running speculation over the Kremlin’s reluctance to support al-Assad directly (see: Syria Update 27 April 2020).

The deft stage-management of the announcement of the Assads’ novel coronavirus infection has stands in stark contrast to the Syrian Government’s pandemic response itself, in which indifference, denial, and obstruction have combined to heighten risks to civilians. For an in-depth study of the systemic fragilities in Syrian public health that have been revealed by the pandemic, please see COAR’s latest report: Syrian Public Health after COVID-19: Entry Points and Lessons Learned from the Pandemic Response.

Unconfirmed Reports: Syrian Fighters Preparing for Yemen Deployment

In a familiar pattern, Yemen appears to be the next destination for Turkish proxies

Northwest Syria: On 9 March, local sources shared as-of-yet unconfirmed reports that Syrian fighters are now being recruited in Turkish-held northwest Syria for deployment into the Yemen conflict. Fighters will, reportedly, be transferred via Turkey to Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Reports indicate that the recruited fighters will be embedded alongside a faction loyal to Yemeni President Abd al-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and which has fought on the side of the Saudi-led coalition seeking to restore Hadi’s authority, following the Houthi movement’s takeover of Sana’a, in 2014. Local sources indicated that persons who want to go to Yemen can sign contracts ranging from three months to six months, with monthly salaries from $2,500 to $3,000. According to audio recordings circulated by Syrians living in the opposition-controlled northwest, the fighters’ tasks will be limited to guard duty along the Saudi-Yemeni border and protecting military bases and institutions of the Yemeni national army.

In parallel, Russia continues to send Syrian fighters to Libyan battlefields through security contractors inside Government-controlled areas in Syria. On 4 March, local media sources indicated that the Russian Wagner company, through local intermediaries, transported 25 fighters from Rural Damascus to Libya via the Hmeimim airbase. According to media sources, since October 2020 Russia has flown more than 41 flights transporting military equipment and fighters to Libya using Cham Wings airlines, which has been associated with major Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf.

For Syrians, fleeing conflict at home increasingly means fighting abroad

Amid persistent conflict in the region, Syria has become a convenient recruiting pool for foreign actors seeking mercenary fighters who have few alternative livelihood opportunities. While local reports on the transfer of opposition-affiliated fighters from Syria to Yemen have not yet been confirmed, they should not be dismissed out of hand. Similar reports preceded earlier deployments to other conflicts beyond Syria’s borders, including in Libya, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. As the Syria conflict enters a second decade, violence and instability will inevitably flow beyond Syria’s borders. For international aid actors, it is important to note that, unlike many of the foreign fighters entering Syria, the Syrians entering foreign conflicts are seldom motivated primarily by ideology. Former opposition fighters have entered the ranks on both sides of the Libya conflict via Turkey and Russia, for instance. Mercenary mobilisation is seen mainly as a means of employment — it is particularly attractive due to the deteriorating economic situation in Syria (see: The Syrian Economy at War: Armed Group Mobilisation as Livelihood and Protection Strategy). Foreign powers are likely to exploit these conditions as long as Syrians lack realistic alternatives.

Fuel Allocations Slashed as Supply Squeeze Hits Government Areas

Fuel allocations to be decreased by as much as 20 percent

Damascus; Hamran and Tarhin, Aleppo Governorate: On 9 March, the Government of Syria Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources announced that fuel allocations for areas under Government control would be decreased — by 15 percent for petrol and 20 percent for diesel — due to the “delay in fuel shipments’ arrival because of sanctions and the U.S.’s economic embargo”. According to the ministry, the allocations would be restored to baseline once fuel supplies arrive. The decision has been associated with a new fuel crisis erupting in Government of Syria–controlled areas, as multiple media sources report shortages at the majority of gas stations in Damascus and public-transit crises in both Rural Damascus and As-Sweida.

The fuel shortage comes after a 6 March incident in which Russian forces targeted two locations in opposition-controlled areas — one of them a fuel market in Hamran (Jarablus) and the other a fuel refinery in Tarhin (Al Bab), northern rural Aleppo — with ballistic missiles. It was reported that at least four people were killed and more than 40 were injured, while 200 to 300 fuel trucks were reportedly destroyed. It is worth noting that Hamran is the main entry point for fuel coming into Government-held areas from northeast Syria.

Fuel flashpoint

As can be expected, the Government of Syria’s response to the supply shortfall entails a set of policies to slash allocations, which will impact livelihoods and lead to longer queues and higher prices. It is worth noting that this is the second decrease in fuel allocations since the beginning of the year; on 10 January, a similar decrease (17 to 24 percent for petrol and diesel respectively) was announced, also due to shortfalls. The impact of the reductions in central distribution has been widely felt among consumers. On 3 February, Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Bassam Toumeh stated that around 60 percent of Syrians (approximately 2.2 million families) have not received their fuel allocations for this year, due to supply shortages. Meanwhile, the allocations themselves have been slashed in half, from 400 liters per capita per year to 200 liters. As a result, families are forced to make due without, or to purchase more expensive fuel on the open market.

The current fuel crisis has been triggered by several factors. Fuel supplies coming from Iran and Russia have been delayed due to economic deterioration in both countries, and supply challenges have been aggravated by the economic embargo of Syria. Moreover, on 11 March, the Wall Street Journal reported a dozen previously undisclosed Israeli attacks on tankers, designed to interrupt the Iran-Syria oil pipeline. Another likely factor is the halt to fuel supplies coming from northeast Syria since the beginning of February, apparently as a result of U.S. pressure on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Russian bombardment of fuel facilities in opposition-controlled areas, particularly fuel trucks coming from northeast Syria, can be read as a Russian denunciation of the Self-Administration’s ongoing fuel shipments to opposition-controlled areas even as the SDF cuts off Government-controlled areas. That said, on 10 March, media sources reported that a convoy of 230 fuel trucks belonging to the Qaterji Company had carried fuel from northeast Syria to Government-controlled areas, suggesting that this supply line is not entirely severed. Indeed, the combination of need and porous regional borders between zones of control in Syria will heighten the incentive for illicit crossline oil trading. Ultimately, the Russian bombardment in northern Aleppo might have been motivated by another, more callous objective: disrupting fuel-dependent services and related sectors in opposition-held areas.

Russian Base Expansion in Eastern Homs and Aleppo

The moves demonstrate a long-term interest in Syria’s security, politics, and economy

Tadmor, Homs Governorate; Aleppo, Aleppo Governorate: Local sources have confirmed recent reports that Russian forces are establishing a permanent military base near Tadmor, in eastern rural Homs, as reported by Zaman al-Wasl. The new base will be built on Jabal al-Mazar, about 13 kilometres north of Tadmor, and will include an airstrip 780 metres long. The site reportedly encompasses 37 hectares and is located near weapons warehouses belonging to the Syrian Air Force. Russian forces have begun digging a large trench, three metres deep and two metres wide, around the base to secure the area against attacks, according to media reports.

Relatedly, Syria Report indicates that Russia is attempting to purchase real estate in Aleppo’s Handarat Palestinian refugee camp — at the northern entrance to the city — through Liwa al-Quds, a pro-Russia Palestinian militia. Reportedly, the purchases will facilitate the area’s conversion into a military base. Russian forces already occupy a military installation north of Handarat, which includes a training camp for Liwa al-Quds fighters. Reports said that Russian forces encouraged Liwa al-Quds to purchase (with Russian funding) properties inside Handarat camp, in order to convert the area into a military zone entirely under Russian influence. Brokers have reportedly warned camp residents of future demolitions, pressuring them to sell their homes. Reportedly, 70 homes have been purchased this way. Liwa al-Quds continues to maintain a security perimeter around the camp, making access more difficult and increasing pressure on residents to sell.

Becoming Russia’s base nation

These base expansion plans follow an extension of the runway at Hmeimim airbase (see: Syria Update 15 February 2021). All told, these developments suggest that long-term economic, political, and regional geo-strategic considerations are at play — and that the Kremlin intends to maintain a presence in Syria irrespective of the status of the conflict. Local sources note that Russain forces vacated the T4 Airbase near Homs city due to repeated Israeli strikes against Iranian forces there. Because Iranian forces refused to vacate the T4 Airbase, Russian forces are said to have relocated Mahin, south of Homs, and the desert east of Tadmor.  While the exact purpose of the Russian airbase near Homs is not certain, it will provide a foothold that can be used for combating Islamic State (IS) cells that remain active throughout the eastern rural Homs desert and toward the Iraqi border, and which continue to launch attacks against Government of Syria and Iranian forces. Russian warplanes carried out 40 airstrikes in IS areas in the desert as recently as two weeks ago, according to reports. Russian mineral and mining interests in rural Homs may also benefit from the redoubled Russian presence afforded by the new base.

Less clear are the conditions surrounding the base in Aleppo. Local sources question whether the property transactions are part of a plan to expand a Russian military site in the area. That said, Russian forces will likely benefit from the sales. The combined economic and political pressure may leave Palestinian residents of the camp may have little option but to sell. The camp is heavily conflict affected and the high price of building materials means that residents struggle to make much-needed repairs.

UAE: Syria Should Return to Arab League, but Sanctions Complicate Matters

The call for a regional detente is among the most notable yet

Abu Dhabi, UAE: On 9 March, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan conducted a news conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in which he called for Syria’s return to the Arab League, as well as “joint action” with the Government of Syria and the nation’s private sector. Al-Nahyan stated that it is in the region’s best interest for Syria’s position in the regional order to return to “normal.” However, he also stated that the U.S. sanctions enshrined in the Caesar Act “make the matter difficult.”

No end to Syria’s isolation in sight

The UAE’s call to restore Syrian representation to the Arab League is among the most significant gestures of its kind to date. That said, it does not represent a change of tack for the UAE, which has long toed the line on rapprochement with Syria. More importantly, the secondary sanctions brought into force under the Caesar Act are intended to prevent precisely the type of economic and political manoeuvres that the UAE is now advocating. Russia views the UAE as a key regional partner, sharing its interest in fostering normalisation with the Government of Syria, albeit perhaps for different reasons. In November, the Russian-sponsored conference on refugee returns in Damascus implicitly linked reconstruction to the repatriation of Syrians abroad, an important plank in the normalisation platform advanced by Russia and the Government of Syria (see: Syria Update 2 November 2020 and Syria Update 16 November 2020). In the process, the conference framed reconstruction as a lucrative investment opportunity, an especially attractive prospect for Emirati firms. Nonetheless, as long as the Caesar Act is enforced, there is little reason to suspect that such firms will risk American sanctions in order to cash in on Syria’s reconstruction.

Rising Suicides Tell Story of Worsening Socioeconomic Pressures

Reports point to dire economic, social, and political conditions

Various Locations: On 9 March, the head of the General Commission of Forensic Medicine, Zaher Hajo, said that 31 suicides had been reported in Government of Syria–controlled areas since the beginning of 2021. Of the victims, 24 were male and seven were female; there were five youths (under 18) and one elderly person. For comparison, 124 suicides in total were reported in 2019, while 172 cases were reported between January and October 2020 (123 male and 49 female). Hajo confirmed that one suicide case has been reported every two days during 2020. Hanging, shooting, and poisoning are the main suicide methods recorded in Syria. Between January and October 2020, Aleppo recorded the largest number of suicides out of all Government-controlled areas (30), followed by Lattakia (29), and Damascus (27). Hashem Shlash, the head of Forensic Medicine in Aleppo, said that suicide cases in the governorate rose from 25 in 2019 to 36 in 2020.

In northwest Syria, the Syria Response Coordination Group announced that 6 suicide cases have been recorded among IDPs in 2021 so far, while 19 cases were confirmed in 2020. “Deteriorating livelihood conditions, the loss of private assets during displacement, and a lack of hope of returning to their communities due to Government control over their hometowns are the main drivers of suicide among IDPs”, the statement added. In northeast Syria, media sources reported that between 10 and 24 suicides have been reported in areas controlled by the SDF between June 2020 and March 2021.

It must be noted that such numbers represent only officially confirmed cases. Additional cases are reported only on social media, without being formally recognized or registered, while other cases are never categorised as suicide due to social stigma.

A silent epidemic

Mental health and psychosocial support are frequently overlooked dimensions of patient care in Syria, not least because of considerable needs that exist across multiple sectors. After enduring 10 years of conflict, many Syrians have deep-seated and seldom-met mental health needs. The challenge of satisfying these needs is aggravated by healthcare worker training paradigms that predate the conflict, the general deterioration of the healthcare sector, and the lack of qualified cadres of mental health professionals in each of Syria’s regions. Donors and aid implementers should not neglect mental healthcare, although data gaps complicate efforts to identify needs and find programming entry points.

Salient examples of data quantifying the psychological, economic, and social challenges facing Syrians inside the country and abroad are being published, however. Late last month, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published a study on the devastating impact of the conflict on 1,200 young Syrians interviewed in Syria, Lebanon, and Germany. It found that a majority of young Syrians face significant challenges relating to their financial situation, education, and livelihood opportunities, while at least half of them have lost one of their relatives or close friends, or/and have been forced to leave their homes. Another study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that around 41 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have thought about committing suicide. In addition to the economic, social, and security and mobility factors, cultural attitudes and practice are important factors. Visiting a psychiatrist or psychologist can be viewed as shameful, which discourages treatment. Social support for young people, in particular, is often deprioritised.

Salvation Government Offers Farmers No-Interest Solar Energy Loans

Farmers in Idleb will be eligible for loans to set up solar panels for irrigation

Idleb Governorate. On 3 March, the Salvation Government’s Ministry of Agriculture announced its plan to provide no-interest loans to farmers who own licensed private water wells to enable them to install solar panels for irrigation purposes and set up drip-irrigation systems. According to the announcement, only those who own more than 30 dunums of land will be eligible for the loans, while priority will be given to farmer collectives (of no fewer than five farmers) sharing the same water resources. The move follows decisions made earlier in 2021 to provide subsidised fodder through the General Directorate of Agriculture and subsidised seeds through the Directorate of Seed Multiplication. It is worth noting that the last few months have also witnessed intensified efforts by Salvation Government officials, especially Prime Minister Ali Keddeh, to meet with representatives of local communities, in an overt bid to win local support.

Stick and carrot

From a purely economic viewpoint, moving toward more renewable and technologically sophisticated agricultural practices could have a significant impact on agricultural activities in Idleb, considering the increasing scarcity of resources such as fuel and water. Over the past several years, a growing number of people, especially farmers, have installed solar panels to provide electricity for their houses and farms, given that electricity provided via the local generator system has become increasingly expensive. The high initial cost of installing solar panels is the primary barrier preventing more people from making the shift. According to local sources, the cost of installing panels for a house ranges from $250 to $700, depending on the number of panels and batteries needed. Little support has been provided by organisations and local governance structures. It is worth noting that the solar panel market is run entirely through the private sector; to date, no attempts have been made by the Salvation Government or local councils to regulate or interfere in it.

From a governance perspective, the Salvation Government’s recent decisions regarding the agriculture sector make sense on two levels. First, encouraging additional economic activity by supporting capital-intensive facilities and activities while also issuing decisions forcing ministerial registration, at the risk of being shut down or fined, could stimulate the economy and formalise the sector. This approach could ensure more revenues via taxes and fees while also increasing the authorities’ monitoring of all kinds of economic activities.

Second, providing financial assistance and subsidised goods is almost certainly, in part, a bid to increase the popularity of the Salvation Government, which has consistently been accused of levying taxes without providing commensurate services or support. This aligns with the Salvation Government’s aim to portray itself as a legitimate actor on the local and international level. However, due to its limited financial capacity — given that profitable sectors such as electricity, crossing points, and telecommunications are controlled by companies controlled directly by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (see: Syria Update 27 July 2020) — it is not clear whether it has the capacity to move from a rentier model to a system of broadly inclusive welfare.

Open Source Annex

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.

How Does Russia Benefit from ‘Strangling’ Syria Economically?

What Does it Say? Russia has not provided Syria with much in the way of financial support, claiming that it is also under sanctions and in the midst of a recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reading Between the Lines:

A desperate Syrian regime benefits Russia, forcing it to surrender greater autonomy and make more significant economic concessions.

Source: Salon Syria                     Language:  Arabic                         Date: 6 March 2021

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The Nightmare of Mines Threatens Salamiyah City. The Regime’s Efforts To Dismantle It Are Invisible.

What Does it Say? Although the city of Salamiyah has not witnessed any fighting since IS was defeated, landmines placed on the outskirts of the town still take the lives of farmers in the fields.

Reading Between the Lines: Mines and UXO remain unaddressed challenges in conflict-affected parts of Syria, where protracted fighting and the lack of information-sharing complicate efforts to de-mine areas for return and a restoration of normal life.

Source: Enab Baladi        Language: Arabic            Date: 8 March 2021

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Targeting Health: Attacks on Medical Facilities in Syria

What Does it Say? A map showing the locations and quantity of attacks on medical facilities in Syria.

Reading Between the Lines: Medical facilities are supposed to be exempt from attacks. That is far from the case in Syria, where people are afraid of entering medical facilities due to their status as frequent targets.

Source: Targeting Health, The Syrian Archive     Language: English

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Ten Grim Lessons the World has Learned from a Decade of War in Syria

What Does it Say? The article outlines 10 reasons why the conflict in Syria has a global impact.

Reading Between the Lines: Refugee outflows are an obvious consequence of the conflict, yet the erosion of norms and the UN’s well-publicised failures will have lasting ramifications.

Source: The Guardian         Language: English         Date: 7 March2021

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Syria: Another Decade of Crisis on the Horizon Expected to Displace Millions More

What Does it Say? The conflict in Syria could see up to 6 million more people displaced from the country if the crisis continues.

Reading Between the Lines: This is of particular interest to the international community, as more displacement threatens to upset already fragile regional states, while anti-refugee sentiment has had a profound impact on Western political discourse.

Source: Norwegian Refugee Council Language: English  Date: 8 March 2021

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Crisis in Syria: The Deadliest Place for Humanitarians

What Does it Say? Syria ranks third on the IRC’s annual emergency watchlist, designating the country as one of the most dangerous places for both residents and humanitarians.

Reading Between the Lines: The conflict has devastated Syrian infrastructure and the destruction of hospitals has caused many aid and health workers to face great danger in the country.

Source: International Rescue Committee    Language: English      Date: 25 February 2021

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How NGOs Abandoned the Middle East’s Radicals

What Does it Say? The article makes the case that donor-funded programming and aid activities have fallen short of the promises of democracy-promotion, rights, and equality that are often the foundations of Western outreach abroad.

Reading Between the Lines: Blinded by idealism, the article overlooks major realities concerning host-government approvals, the local realities of labour conditions, and the programming objectives of donors themselves.

Source: Current Affairs       Language: English                  Date: 1 March 2021

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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.

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    The content compiled and presented by COAR Global LTD is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy.

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    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.