Syria Update Digest
On 5 April, contradictory media reports emerged regarding the fate of the Syrian tycoon Khodr Ali Taher, who disappeared after the Syrian Government detained three of his relatives in Damascus. While it is too early to know Taher’s fate and the reasons behind his sudden absence, the Syrian Government’s routine crackdowns on its business elite serve as a reminder of its dominance over business and society. Such relationships will shape the national economy and contracting environment for the foreseeable future. On the whole, aid actors have struggled to understand the Syrian war economy, but there is time yet to adjust contracting practices to ensure early recovery funding and area-based approaches do not entrench and enrich Syria’s wartime economic elite.
- On 4 April, Indian news sources reported that the country would donate 30,000 tonnes of wheat and 10,000 tonnes of rice to Syria. The donation, while sorely needed, merely delays the inevitable confrontation with an expected shortfall of 2 million tonnes of wheat estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation for the 2021/2022 season.
- On 4 April, four children were killed by Government of Syria shelling on the town of Maaret Elnaasan, Idleb Governorate. Opposition-controlled areas continue to be subject to shelling and airstrikes despite the March 2020 ceasefire, with predictable patterns of retaliation and the constant risk of escalation.
- In early April, media sources reported the deployment of additional Iran-backed forces to the Mahin military warehouse in eastern Homs Governorate. The spread of Iranian militias has coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, suggesting that Iran is moving in to replace Russian resources that are being redirected to its war.
- Four local council representatives serving Ar-Raqqa, Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zor, and Idleb governorates will be replaced as part of an apparent initiative to repurpose the political opposition body, the Syrian National Coalition. This effort is the latest attempt to overcome the kind of internal political differences that have distinguished the SNC since the earliest days of the conflict.
- On 18 March, images began circulating on social media announcing the upcoming launch of “Syria Phone”, a mobile telecommunications company in Idleb. Better connectivity is sorely needed in Idleb; nevertheless, there is a significant risk that the network could be used for surveillance amid an increasingly authoritarian environment.
- On 5 April, shop owners organised a sit-in in front of the municipality building in the central market of Quamishli City to protest tax increases. While protests are generally more common in Arab-majority areas, these protests in Kurdish-majority Quamishli are notable in demonstrating cross-community discontent with the Autonomous Administration’s policies.
- On 6 April, five members of the opposition Syrian National Army were killed in a suspected Islamic State (IS) attack in Salama, north of Azaz in Aleppo Governorate. IS continues to demonstrate its ability to launch attacks across Syria, far from its main areas of operations in the central and eastern desert.
On 5 April, contradictory media reports emerged regarding the fate of the Syrian tycoon Khodr Ali Taher, one of Syria’s most prominent figures and a divisive conflict entrepreneur, who disappeared following the detention of three of his relatives in Damascus, among them his brother-in-law and confidant Iyad al-Ra’i. Some reports (dubiously) suggested that Taher fled the country with 3 billion USD, fearing detention, while others claim that his sudden absence from public view was coordinated with President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle. This is not the first time a major Syrian business figure has disappeared from public life, and it is unlikely to be the last major shake-up within Syria’s elite business community. Aid actors would do well to follow closely as public disclosures bring to light more detail concerning Taher’s business interests, which reflect the networks of profit and power that make up the Syrian war economy and often overlap with contracting issues that are now major concerns for the aid response.
Taher is a prominent intermediary and contractor for the Syrian Arab Army’s Fourth Division, which is led by Maher al-Assad, the brother of Bashar al-Assad. Known as the “prince of the borders”, Taher has established several companies that allegedly launder money collected illicitly at crossline checkpoints and border crossings and through looting. Through his Assad regime links, Taher has invested in multiple sectors including construction, security and protection, telecommunications, media, and tourism. In 2020, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added him and some of his companies to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List pursuant to Syria sanctions authorities (see: Syria Update 5 October 2020).
Routine crackdowns — Anti-corruption or showing dominance?
Given the deeply secretive nature of the Syrian regime, it is difficult to know the real reasons behind Taher’s disappearance. However, the detention of his relatives, who have been deeply involved in Taher’s businesses, could be read as part of the Syrian Government’s efforts to present itself as the champion of anti-corruption. In December 2019, the Syrian Government pressured the loyalist businessman Muhammad Hamsho to settle a case filed against him by the Ministry of Education, following which Hamsho paid more than 90 billion SYP (about 100 million USD at the time). In August 2019, the Syrian Government cracked down on and seized the assets of President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who was arguably the country’s most prominent business figure, reportedly controlling 60 percent of the Syrian economy before the Syria uprising started in 2011 (see: Syria Update 29 August-4 September 2019). The move against Makhlouf was justified by the Government as a precautionary measure aimed at ensuring that the money owed to the country’s telecommunications authority was paid. Makhlouf has since then been in a state of semi-occlusion, having disappeared from public view except for rare — and to many Syrians, puzzling — video statements proclaiming his own generosity and persecution by the Syrian regime.
The seriousness of the Syrian Government’s efforts in combating corruption is questionable. Since its previous clampdowns on both Hamsho and Makhlouf, little has been reported about the judicial merits of their cases. While Hamsho succumbed to government pressure, allowing him to maintain limited influence, Makhlouf was completely pushed out of the scene and has reportedly been stripped of his fortune. It is too early to tell whether Taher’s fate will be similar to that of Hamsho or Makhlouf. Nevertheless, the Syrian Government’s bold actions towards its loyalist businessmen, including the president’s cousin, send a clear message that no one, no matter how fundamental, is indispensable. In doing so, the Government not only promotes an image of fighting corruption, but also reminds its loyalists and opponents alike that the state’s prestige will be protected even at a high cost.
A contracting minefield
The crackdown on Taher draws attention to the complexities inherent to high-stakes business in Syria, including commercial enterprises that operate with regime sanction and pose inherent risks to aid actors seeking local contractors. Among Taher’s business interests are tourism and transport companies, an advertising firm, money transfer, and Emma Tel, a telecom that has positioned itself as an alternative to the overtly regime-linked Syriatel. Aid actors routinely procure goods and services in these sectors, and without careful due diligence and sophisticated know-your-customer practices, they risk creating linkages to actors like the sanctioned Taher. The risks inherent to such contracting only multiply with the shift toward early recovery and area-based approaches within the aid response, although mitigations are available. Ultimately, Taher is representative of Syria’s wartime economic elite, who aim to solidify their conflict fortunes by pivoting toward conventional business and sectors that will thrive in the post-conflict and transitional stages. Aid actors should not expect to fundamentally change Syria, but if they are to avoid enriching its most malign figures, they must begin by understanding them and how they operate within a maze of shell companies and interlinked businesses.
Whole of Syria Review
India to Donate 30,000 Tonnes of Wheat to Syria
On 4 April, Indian news sources reported that the country would donate 30,000 tonnes of wheat and 10,000 tonnes of rice to Syria as part of a 190,000 tonne donation to the World Food Programme (WFP) for distribution to conflict-affected countries in need. According to the report, WFP has estimated Syria requires 65,000 tonnes of wheat and 28,000 tonnes of rice to cover short-term, urgent needs. India is one of Syria’s largest rice suppliers, and has previously donated several shipments of rice to the country.
Half empty or half full?
The donation, while sorely needed, merely delays the inevitable confrontation with an expected shortfall of 2 million tonnes of wheat estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for the 2021/2022 season (see: Syria Update 10 January 2022). Russia’s pledge to supply one million tonnes of wheat last year remains unfulfilled, as the fallout from its invasion of Ukraine has led to challenges in securing payments and transport. Global wheat prices have spiked to their highest level since 2008 amid limited supply, making securing stocks on open markets prohibitively expensive for Syria’s cash-strapped state. Syria’s domestic wheat production is expected to be poor once again this year, as the area cultivated for and planted with wheat has declined to historically low levels (see: Syria Update 21 March 2022). Amid soaring prices and restricted supply, Syrians continue to suffer from food insecurity, with the most recent WFP situation report estimating 12.4 million people to be food insecure, and 1.3 million severely food insecure. Short-term humanitarian interventions to avert the most severe hunger will be necessary. In the long term, with climate-related stress on water supplies and conflict-related destruction and degradation of infrastructure (see: Syria Update 4 April 2022), donors and aid actors should look to building resilience in Syria’s agriculture sector through the refurbishment of food production and agricultural infrastructure, supporting sustainable water management policies and appropriate cropping where possible.
Government Shelling Kills Four Children in Northwest Syria
On 4 April, four children were killed by Government of Syria shelling on the town of Maaret Elnaasan, northeastern Idleb Governorate. The children were killed while returning from their school on the outskirts of the town, which falls under Salvation Government territory and sits on the border with Government-held Aleppo Governorate. In response to the shelling, local opposition forces targeted military sites belonging to the Government of Syria and militias linked to Russia in Idleb and Aleppo governorates.
Caught in the crossfire
Opposition-controlled areas in northwest Syria continue to be subject to shelling and airstrikes, despite the March 2020 ceasefire (see: Syria Update 9 March 2020), with predictable patterns of retaliation and the constant risk of escalation. Maaret Elnaasan was also struck by Russian and Government of Syria forces last week, reportedly targeting Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) positions (see: Syria Update 4 April 2022), while in February, Government of Syria shelling of the town killed six members of one family. With Idleb under the control of groups considered by Damascus and Moscow to be terrorists, the line between civilian and military targets is often blurred, and their readiness to employ violence to demoralise residents of opposition areas (see: Syria Update 10 January 2022) leaves civilians regularly caught in the crossfire. Violence in the region is likely to continue, putting at risk civilians and aid implementers.
Iranian Forces Deploy in Central Syria after Russian Withdrawal
In early April, media sources reported the deployment of additional Iranian and Iran-backed forces, including the pro-Iran Syrian Arab Army Fourth Division led by Maher al-Assad, to the Mahin military warehouse in eastern Homs Governorate, as Russian and Russia-backed forces, including the Syrian Arab Army Fifth Brigade, withdrew to Palmyra military airport. Iran-aligned forces have recently strengthened their presence in around 120 sites throughout Syria, with its areas of influence stretching from the Lebanese border to eastern Homs Governorate.
The spread of Iranian militias has coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, suggesting that Iran is moving in to replace Russian resources that are being redirected to its war (see: Crisis in Ukraine: Impacts for Syria). Although both countries have intervened to support President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, Russia and Iran have often been at odds inside the country and have competed for influence and investment opportunities. Iran has recently held high-level meetings with Damascus, seeking to bolster economic cooperation and strengthen the two countries’ strategic partnership. Opportunities for Iran to invest in Syria may only grow if, as expected, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal is revived and sanctions on Iran are removed. Iran is looking to entrench itself in Syria, to recoup the costs of its military investment as well as provide transit routes across the so-called “Shia Crescent” that links Iran to its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. Aid actors working across Syria should monitor Iranian military presence, particularly near the south, which is likely to draw Israeli airstrikes.
Syrian National Coalition Dismisses Four Local Council Representatives and Fourteen Members
Four local council representatives serving Ar-Raqqa, Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zor, and Idleb governorates will be replaced as part of an apparent initiative to repurpose the political opposition body, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). In addition, no less than fourteen individuals have also had their membership of the SNC terminated. In response, the Free Patriotic Rally party withdrew from the SNC, citing what it perceives as the coalition’s wayward strategic leadership and insensitivity to the Syrian opposition movement. SNC statements subsequent to the event explain that a range of planned amendments to the coalition’s organisational governance and membership systems will be undertaken in consultation with the public and SNC membership groups.
This effort is by no means novel, and serves as but the latest attempt to overcome the kind of internal political differences which have distinguished the SNC since the earliest days of conflict in Syria. Last month, the SNC reportedly formed a small committee to develop reforms which might help reinvigorate the coalition’s faltering performance amongst its domestic constituencies and on the international stage. Over the years, the views of dominant forces within the coalition have caused the allegiance of current, former, and prospective coalition members to waver, reducing the organisation’s legitimacy amongst the political opposition and detracting from its overarching sense of purpose. Making little to no meaningful contribution in international political fora, side-lined by other domestic actors across Syria’s northern governorates, and weakened by its own maladministration, the SNC stands to fall into further irrelevance absent greater solidarity and reform. If the past decade is any indication, however, neither is a likely outcome of the current reform process, and particularly at a time when the current political landscape refuses to bestow the SNC with any renewed importance.
Salvation Government Set to Launch Telecommunications Company
On 18 March, images began circulating on social media announcing the upcoming launch of “Syria Phone”, a mobile telecommunications company in Idleb. The company is reportedly the work of a partnership with the Salvation Government and an unnamed “private investor”. Sources close to the Salvation Government said services are expected to launch in mid-April, though pro-opposition Syria TV claimed it would take several months more due to technical issues. Social media users raised concerns that the network may be used for surveillance by the Salvation Government and that the “private investor” may be a “new Rami Makhlouf”, the previously powerful tycoon who owned Syriatel, Syria’s largest mobile network operator.
Connectivity: a lucrative commodity
Better connectivity is sorely needed in Idleb, and establishing a network partially owned by the Salvation Government may provide much needed revenue. Since HTS dismantled Syrian telecommunications infrastructure in 2019 amid security concerns, residents of Idleb have largely depended on patchy coverage from Turkish cellular networks, located along the border as well as around Turkish military bases, reporting high prices and poor service. Should the new operator succeed in establishing its own network of cell towers, it could offer significantly improved services in the region, and contribute to HTS leader al-Jolani’s recent ‘pivot’ to services (see: Syria Update 4 April 2022). Nevertheless, given the lack of competition, there are no guarantees that the services will prove any more affordable for ordinary people. The company may instead serve as a lucrative rent extractor for the as-yet unnamed “private investor” and the Salvation Government itself (see also: Syria Update 28 February 2022). Furthermore, there is a significant risk that the network could be used for surveillance amid the increasingly authoritarian environment in Idleb. Aid actors and local residents should act cautiously: the necessity of using state-linked telecoms in Syria has left implementers with few meaningful mitigation measures. An HTS-linked provider in northern Syria would create nearly identical concerns.
New Tax Rates Trigger Protests by Shop Owners in Quamishli City
On 5 April, Arab and Kurdish shop owners organised a sit-in in front of the municipality building in the central market of Quamishli City to protest tax increases of around 70 percent. The protesters also blocked the road leading to the municipality and closed their stores in the al-Alam commercial complex in an effort to attract attention to their demands. Merchants demanded that the Autonomous Administration (AA) reduce taxes and improve economic and living conditions in Quamishli City, caused by poor economic policies, the high prices of imports, and weak purchasing power. The sudden tax increase surprised merchants, as neither the municipality nor AA authorities issued any official decision or announced the changes on their official media platforms.
At whose expense?
While protests are generally more common in Arab-majority areas, these protests in Kurdish-majority Quamishli are notable in demonstrating cross-community discontent with the AA’s policies. This is neither the first — nor likely the last time — that residents of Northeast Syria vocally object to AA policies. In January, protests erupted in Al-Hasakeh for two days in response to an increase in prices and the AA’s monopoly of food commodities (see: Syria Update 24 January 2022). In March, residents of Deir-ez-Zor northern countryside protested the AA cancelling fuel distribution (see: Syria Update 7 March 2022), or lack thereof. Difficult economic conditions and unresponsive governance will likely lead to future protests in northeast Syria. Aid actors in the region should be wary of contributing to upholding dubious governance systems and press the AA to govern inclusively and responsively.
Suspected IS Attack Kills Five Syrian National Army Members
On 6 April, five members of the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA) were killed when as-yet unidentified assailants opened fire from a van at a checkpoint in Salama, north of Azaz in Aleppo Governorate. Among the dead was a commander in the SNA’s Third Legion, Muhammad Hamdo Barbouri. The SNA clashed with the group and reportedly managed to kill or capture some, later issuing a statement accusing the Islamic State (IS) of carrying out the attack. The attack was the largest in the area this year.
Continued threats to stability
IS continues to demonstrate its ability to launch attacks and cause disruption across Syria, far from its main areas of operations in the central and eastern desert. While IS attacks usually target Government of Syria or Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) areas, it has nonetheless increased activities in areas controlled by Turkish-backed factions since 2020. IS attacks remain opportunistic, targeting all actors in Syria and generally intending to sow chaos and instability. It is unclear as of yet whether the group will see a resurgence under its new leader (see: Syria Update 21 March 2022) or if Russia limiting its airstrikes to divert resources to Ukraine will give it more space to operate (see: Syria Update 14 March 2022). The security situation in northwest Syria remains unstable, with multiple bombings that target SNA actors, varyingly attributed to IS, the SDF, and the Government of Syria. Aid actors should be prepared for the continued threat of attacks and instability.
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.