Parliament Sets 26 May Date for Syria’s Fateful Presidential Election
On 18 April, Speaker of the Syrian People’s Assembly Hammouda Sabbagh announced that the nation’s long-anticipated presidential election will be conducted on 26 May. Candidate nominations will be received during a 10-day window, beginning 19 April. As of writing, no candidates have been officially nominated, yet when all is said and done, the election is widely expected to extend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule for another seven-year term.
Whole of Syria Update
The Government Chooses Its Electorate
The announcement puts an end to weeks of mounting speculation that Russia — keen to prevent Syria from taking provocative actions — would pressure Damascus to delay the election. Indeed, efforts by the Government of Syria are already underway to shape the electorate. In early April, select Syrian embassies began to announce pre-registration initiatives to gather the names and information of expatriate voters. Crucially, only those with an official exit stamp from Syria will be allowed to participate when overseas voting takes place on 20 May, effectively barring voting by the many Syrians who were displaced by violence or who fled by unofficial channels. Moreover, the embassies so far involved seemingly exclude countries with large Syrian refugee populations who are more likely to vote against al-Assad. At the same time, additional steps inside Syria are being taken to ensure that domestic voting also favours al-Assad. Thus far, no plans have been announced to facilitate balloting for Syrians residing in the northwest or northeast of the country, thus excluding roughly one-third of the country’s population.
A ‘Do or Die’ Moment
The importance of Syria’s upcoming election is difficult to overstate. If the election proceeds as planned, it will almost certainly grant another term to al-Assad, who ‘won’ 88.7 percent of the vote in the 2014 election. Barring unforeseen developments, such an outcome will effectively table substantive re-consideration of Syria’s political future for another seven years. Carrying out the election will also preempt the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, a UN-led process that has run aground in the face of obstruction by the Government of Syria bloc. In general, the international community interprets UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as requiring the approval of an updated Syrian constitution prior to the presidential election, as part of a credible political reform process. Conducting an election while the Constitutional Committee remains hopelessly deadlocked would be a victory for the contrary viewpoint, held by Russia and the Syrian Government, that sequencing is flexible.
An election that fails to bring about a credible political transition will jeopardise the international aid response. Donor fatigue is already high, and it will only grow if al-Assad cements his place in office until 2028. The Government of Syria’s decision to go forward with the election will force Western actors to reassess two bedrock principles underwriting general policy concerning the decade-long crisis: vital support to the Syrian population and al-Assad’s removal from power. Support to Syrians will become more important than ever if al-Assad’s reelection deepens Syria’s pariah status, yet a victory for al-Assad will make efforts to provide that support more challenging politically, legally, and operationally.
Though the US and Europe will almost certainly dismiss the election’s results, it is important — strategically and morally — that the international community not decrease its support to Syria in response to a ‘victory’ by al-Assad. To reduce vital support would effectively punish the Syrian population over electoral outcomes they do not control. As the Syrian impasse persists, the perilous conditions facing the Syrian populace are worsening. Mercenary recruitment is growing (see: The Syrian Economy at War: Armed Group Mobilization as Livelihood and Protection Strategy). As the state fails and its economic base shrinks, transnational criminal networks are increasingly powerful. Currently, refugee returns are frozen, and worryingly, the pressures to flee the country as a result of protection and livelihood concerns are mounting, even as active conflict ebbs. Such concerns will grow if al-Assad secures another term in the May election. For aid and policy actors, sustained and targeted implementation — including in Government-held areas — will be an imperative. Heightened safeguards against diversion, enhanced coordination on all levels, and a willingness to walk away from projects in cases of interference may be vital components of a more effective approach. Sustaining such support may be the only way to ensure that al-Assad alone does not determine Syrians’ fate, even if the Government of Syria does go forward with the presidential election, come what may.
New Exchange Rates Boost Remittances and Aid
Central Bank announces new exchange rate
Damascus: On 15 April, the Central Bank of Syria (CBS) released a bulletin stating that the exchange rate for incoming money transfers by UN agencies and international aid organisations would be increased to 2,500 SYP/USD. This comes a week after a new exchange rate for importers, merchants and manufacturers was set at 3,375 SYP/USD (see: Syria Update 12 April 2021). Meanwhile, local media have reported that exchange shops in Syria raised the conversion rate for remittances to 3,175 SYP/USD for money entering Syria from Lebanon, Iraq, the UAE, Jordan, Kuwait, and Turkey. Meanwhile, the CBS has also set the official exchange rate at 2,512 SYP/USD. As if to create further confusion, on 13 April President Bashar al-Assad dismissed Hazem Qarfoul as CBS governor without explanation.
Conversion Rate Chaos
The introduction of multiple new conversion rates in such quick succession has plunged the Syrian economy into a state of acute uncertainty. Local sources report that Syrians are struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing rates now in use for many aspects of daily life. Although the official Central Bank rate is now 2,512 SYP/USD, the concurrent use of no fewer than half a dozen rates (figure 1) suggests the ‘official’ rate is all but irrelevant, as carve-outs allow the state to manipulate sector-specific rates to achieve ambiguous fiscal targets. Meanwhile, the reasons for Qarfoul’s dismissal remain unclear. That his firing coincides with a spate of rate changes suggests the CBS may enter a period of dynamic activism in response to Syrians’ growing economic peril.
All told, the latest salvo of rate changes will likely be a mixed bag for Syrians. Increasing the rate used to convert remittances — a vital lifeline — is likely the most powerful weapon in the CBS’s toolkit to improve Syrians’ economic well-being. As inflation has shredded domestic livelihoods, remittances have become an increasingly critical backstop, although rates differ depending on the country of origin. Aid has also become a central pillar of the Syrian economy as other sectors wither. Increases in the conversion rate used by international organisations will also boost their spending power inside Syria, good news for donors and beneficiaries alike.
By contrast, rate changes for importers, merchants, manufacturers, and the industrial sector will likely mean higher costs are passed on to Syrian households. Nearly three times higher than its mid-June 2020 rate of 1,256 SYP/USD, the new industrial rate is a stark jump. That said, as Syria Report has noted, the change may also impart stability by reducing the incentive for traders to buy dollars at favourable (i.e. subsidised) rates and dump them on the black market. Apart from the industrial rate, each of the newly introduced rates has narrowed the gap with the black market, which, at the time of writing, is between 3,000 and 3,175 SYP/USD, according to local sources and Syrian Pound Today.
COVAX Delayed as NES Locks Down during Ramadan
Increased cases of COVID-19 result in a general lockdown to flatten the curve
Northeast Syria: On 11 April, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced a 10-day lockdown beginning on 13 April in all areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria. This includes a curfew, the closure of all international borders and regional crossings, and the suspension of work in administrative institutions. Since the beginning of 2021, the Autonomous Administration has imposed several sets of restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19, with limited success. On 12 April, the region’s Health Authority warned of an imminent humanitarian disaster in northeast Syria due to the rapid spread of the virus during the ongoing third wave of infections. With quarantine centers running at full occupancy, the Health Authority also admitted that actual numbers far exceed the official tally.
In parallel, Autonomous Administration health officials also accused the WHO of failing to provide adequate medical assistance and vaccination deliveries. In another disappointing setback, the WHO representative in Syria has since confirmed that the first consignment of AstraZeneca vaccines to be provided through the COVAX facility has been delayed until May due to insufficient supply.
More Restrictions, Fewer Options, Longer Waiting Times
The northeast Syria lockdown is expected to be extended through the end of Ramadan, although pressure to relax some of the more onerous restrictions will grow, particularly in economically distressed communities. Especially hard-felt are restrictions on mobility and the closing of commercial crossings, given that the region remains highly reliant on Government areas for goods of all kinds (see: Infographic: Northeast Syria Trade Dynamics).
Delay in the supply of vaccines is further unwelcome news for the region, and indeed, all of Syria. Northeast Syria was already at a disadvantage, being slated to receive the smallest per-capita allotment of COVAX vaccines (see: Syria Update 6 April 2021). When the vaccines do arrive, logistical and coordination issues will also emerge. Transferring the vaccines to the northeast will require coordination through Damascus, which the Syrian Government may use as an opportunity to extract political or economic concessions from the Autonomous Administration.
2,744 Returns in Q1 Point to Refugee Standstill
Despite worsening conditions abroad, Syrians are not returning
Various Locations: A mere 2,744 Syrian refugees returned to their communities of origin in the first quarter of 2021, according to a report by the Humanitarian Needs Assessment Program (HNAP). The figures compare with 12,260 returns from abroad in Q1 2020 and 12,238 in Q1 2019. Notably, of the Q1 2021 returnees, 71 percent returned from Lebanon, according to the report.
Point of No Return
The slow pace of returns to Syria should highlight the conditions that make return unattractive, unsafe, and in some cases impossible (see: Syria Update 8 March 2021). It is not surprising that economic factors are a growing need among returnees. On the other hand, it is important to recognise that security and protection concerns remain among the push factors motivating displacement in the first instance. Indeed, the decline in large-scale military offensives in Syria should not be mistaken for a decrease in security concerns. Localised issues — including personal status, the justified fear of persecution, unfair judicial procedures, and arbitrary treatment by a pervasive state security apparatus — remain rampant.
That being said, the HNAP figures should be interpreted advisedly. The data is compiled based on self-reporting, and it counts refugees as returnees only when they return to their communities of origin. Nonetheless, recent UNHCR and HNAP figures are in broad agreement: few refugees are returning to Syria. Whereas UNHCR data indicate that 9,351 returnees left Lebanon for Syria in 2020, HNAP data show 8,883 returnees from Lebanon in the same period. Such evidence belies efforts by Russia and others to present Syria as safe and attractive for returnees (see: Syria Update 2 November 2020). Donors and relief actors must contend with the reality that large-scale refugee return remains out of reach, even as major host nations such as Lebanon undergo dramatic upheaval of their own.
Interim Government Introduces Syrian Revolution Curriculum
Ideology and differing curricula may deepen the divide between Syria’s regions
Euphrates Shield, Azaz: On 13 April, the Syrian Interim Government Ministry of Education announced that it was introducing a new historical curriculum covering the events of the Syrian uprising, from March 2011 to the present. Interim Government Minister of Education Hoda Al-Absi stated that the course on contemporary Syrian history would be part of basic curriculum, to be taught to middle schoolers in 7th and 8th grade, and high schoolers in 11th and 12th grade. The curriculum will be implemented in areas under control of the Interim Government, namely Azaz and the Euphrates Shield area.
History Is Written by the Winners, Sometimes
For students, the pitfalls of introducing a revamped educational curriculum abound. Deviating from the Government of Syria’s standardised curriculum will affect student certificates; it can therefore have knock-on effects on university placement and already dismal career prospects. Students educated in the new curriculum will likely be blocked from working in other parts of Syria, particularly Government-held areas, an impact that will harden the borders between Syria’s already polarised regions. Ideological alterations may also be significant. Although the substance of the changes remains unknown, it is not difficult to imagine an ideological portrait of the conflict period that will deepen social divisions and further isolate opposition-held areas from the other regions of the country.
Donor-funded education programming will largely be spared the direct impact of these changes as long as the curriculum is implemented only in the Euphrates Shield area and Azaz, which receive far less education-sector support due to concerns over Turkey’s role there. However, the broader international community will certainly feel the impact of changes that rewrite Syria’s modern history in a way that deepens social tensions, rather than alleviating them.
Government Hikes Fuel Price as Allocations Are Upped
Fuel allocations go up as oil arrives from Iran
Damascus: On 16 April, the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection raised the litre price of 95-octane fuel to 2,500 SYP (78 cents USD), an increase of 25 percent. Relatedly, the director of operations and maintenance at Syria’s state petroleum company declared that the fuel crisis had entered a period of “gradual relaxation”, as fuel allocations are now expected to increase to 75 percent of their previous levels. Fuel allocations were slashed in late March in response to an acute shortage stemming in part from blockage of the Suez Canal, which halted Iranian oil shipments (see: Syria Update 31 March 2021). On 12 April, media sources reported that three Iranian oil tankers had arrived in Syria with 3 million barrels, enough to sustain Syria for roughly two months.
Crisis Averted — For Now
The arrival of the tankers has eased one of Syria’s worst fuel shortages in memory. Though the transit paralysis across Government-held areas has finally subsided, increased fuel costs had not been anticipated. These price hikes contrast with the gains made by the Syrian pound, which recovered more than 30 percent of its value against the dollar since mid-March. In dollar terms, however, the cost of 95-octane fuel has almost doubled since 15 March (see: Syria Update 22 March 2021) from 43 cents USD per litre to 78 cents USD as of 16 April. High costs of imported and cross-line oil supplies likely account for the raise, which has driven the Government to rely even more heavily on the civilian population to provide revenues.
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