Syria Update Digest
The Syrian issue has recently come to the fore in Turkish politics, following multiple statements by Turkish officials regarding the future of Syrian refugees in the country. On 21 April, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that Turkey, along with four other countries, had begun an initiative to repatriate Syrian refugees as soon as their safety could be guaranteed. On 22 April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan echoed Çavuşoğlu’s statement, adding that as soon as “we create a safe and secure environment, refugees will return voluntarily”. For the time being, Turkish plans to provide a safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees to areas under its control seem largely unrealistic amid the lack of security in northern Syria. The Turkish government’s current posture on the matter is likely motivated at least in part by the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, slated for June 2023.
- On 13 April, the governor of Lattakia, Amer Ismail Hilal, issued a circular banning the installation of commercial generators (known as ‘ampere electricity’). While couched in the language of safety, the ban on ‘ampere electricity’ is likely aimed at ensuring the Government of Syria can continue to regulate and profit from the electricity sector.
- On 24 March, Syrian and international LGBTQ+ activists officially registered a new NGO in Geneva, Switzerland, to provide programmes and services targeting the Syrian LGBTQ+ community inside the country and in the diaspora. The organisation’s registration constitutes a much-needed step for gender and sexual minorities in Syria, who have often been ignored or actively marginalised throughout the conflict.
- A series of fires set at offices of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) in northeast Syria has reignited a longstanding rift between the KNC and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which the former blames for the fires. The development has undermined recent progress towards political dialogue between the two sides amid rocky geopolitical developments across Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq.
- On 17 April, Islamic State (IS) spokesperson Abu Umar al-Muhajir issued a second audio statement, in which he announced the launch of a campaign to avenge the killing of his predecessor and the former IS leader. Through this campaign, IS seeks to prove its relevance, boost its supporters’ morale, and disrupt regional security.
- A World Health Organization (WHO) Damascus Health Sector coordination meeting in early April highlighted the opacity of Syria’s healthcare budgeting and the reliance on donor funding and the private provision of services. While privatisation predates the Syrian conflict, limited state capacity has accelerated the trend, leading to higher costs for beneficiaries and tying into war economy dynamics.
- President Bashar al-Assad updated the 2012 cybersecurity law to include sentences up to 15 years for minor criticisms of the Syrian President, Government, and constitution. The law constitutes an effort by the Government to tighten its grip on cyberspace.
Since late April, the Syrian issue has come to the fore in Turkish politics, following statements by multiple Turkish officials regarding plans for the future of Syrian refugees in the country. On 21 April, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that Turkey, along with four other countries, had launched an initiative to repatriate Syrian refugees as soon as their safety could be guaranteed. On 22 April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan echoed Çavuşoğlu’s statement, adding that as soon as “we create a safe and secure environment, refugees will return voluntarily”. On the same day, however, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced that the Turkish government would not grant “Eid leave” to Syrian refugees to visit Syria during the end-of-Ramadan holiday, declaring that those “who want to go for the holiday will not be allowed to return”.
Although provocative statements by Turkish officials concerning Syrian refugees are nothing new, the concentration of such claims in recent weeks is unusual. They are also notable for coming amid a flurry of statements and leaked plans regarding repatriation and tweaks to Turkey’s long-standing posture vis-à-vis Damascus. To that end, on 25 April, the conservative Turkish newspaper Türkiye Gazetesi published details of a government plan to return 1.5 million Syrian refugees to northern areas of Syria under Turkish control within 15-20 months of creating a stable livelihoods and security environment at an indeterminate point in the future. The newspaper also noted that talks between Ankara and Damascus have intensified regarding two main issues of mutual concern: Syrian refugees and the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northeast Syria. This came amid reports of potential Turkish-Syrian rapprochement following an alleged intelligence meeting between the two countries’ heads of security in Moscow on 14 April.
Although thawing ties with Damascus would represent a shift in Turkish foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria, the core propositions of such developments are anything but new. The emphasis on refugee return and the creation of a border ‘safe zone’ in particular represent a renewed emphasis on long-held policy objectives, surfacing now due to trends in Turkish domestic politics. While Turkey has so far failed to deliver conditions suitable for Syrians’ en masse return — and such returns remain unlikely for the foreseeable future — donor governments, particularly in Europe, should be aware that rising domestic pressure over the refugees in Turkey is likely to create additional demands for support.
Is the north secure?
For the time being, Turkish plans to orchestrate Syrian refugees’ safe and voluntary return seem largely unrealistic, but they do speak to domestic political pressures and provide a justification for Turkish policies in Syria. Turkish officials have frequently couched their country’s military, security, economic, and administrative activities in Syria’s northern border regions as the necessary steps for building a ‘safe zone’ capable of supporting returning Syrian refugees and absorbing Syrians IDPs before they reach Turkish borders (see: Syria Update 9-15 October 2019 and “Northern Corridor”). Since its first military operation in Syria, Ankara has therefore prioritised efforts to provide governance and stability in its areas of direct control, namely Olive Branch, Euphrates Shield, and Peace Spring. Yet, these areas remain anything but secure, despite increasing efforts by Turkey to fold them into the administrative and governmental remit of corresponding Turkish provinces. Few Syrians are believed to have returned, despite unsubstantiated claims in March by Turkish immigration officials that 500,000 Syrians have already returned to unspecified areas of Syria.
Fueling the insecurity in these areas are local and geopolitical concerns. Last week, Ankara announced that a Turkish policeman was killed in a missile attack on the Euphrates Shield area allegedly launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In parallel, the Turkish army intervened to quell another bout of deadly infighting between factions of the Syrian National Army (SNA) in the same area. Violence erupted between their fighters in February and March, resulting in civilian casualties. Adding to the state of insecurity, on 22 April, Russian airstrikes targeted the cities of Afrin and Azaz in rural Aleppo, previously considered “safe” areas under the control of the SNA. There were no reported casualties. Fanning tensions between Moscow and Ankara is Turkey’s decision to close its airspace to Russian civilian and military planes flying to Syria.
Eyes on the ballot box
Viewed more broadly, the Turkish government’s preoccupation with refugee return is to a large extent motivated by the parliamentary and presidential elections slated for June 2023. Members of the Turkish opposition have exploited mounting anti-Syrian sentiment and sought to pin Turkey’s economic woes on refugees. Some members have openly called for thawing ties with the Syrian Government to deal with the threat of the PKK in northeast Syria. Turkish Interior Minister Soylu’s recent statement banning the return of Syrian refugees taking “Eid leave” may signal the ruling party’s appetite to blunt the advantage the opposition gains through control of anti-refugee and pro-normalisation narratives. However, normalisation with Syria is an especially tall order given Damascus’s insistence on the Turkish military’s withdrawal from the north. For the time being, the deteriorating state of security in the north and tension between Ankara and Moscow are unlikely to create the conditions for safe return.
Whole of Syria Review
Governor of Lattakia Bans Installation of Private Commercial Generators
On 13 April, the governor of Lattakia, Amer Ismail Hilal, issued a circular banning the installation of private generators that sell electricity (known as ‘ampere electricity’). Generators used to power public facilities, such as telecommunications networks, will continue to be permitted. The ban comes as electricity continues to be rationed and supply severely restricted across Government of Syria-held territory. In Lattakia, electricity is provided for less than one in every six hours, and the governorate’s overall generated power has fallen from 2,400 megawatts to 1,900 megawatts this month, reportedly due to a decrease in the amount of gas supplied. The decision to ban the private generators was denounced by locals in Lattakia, who complained of insufficient energy supplies and a lack of reasonable alternatives.
While couched in the language of safety, the ban on ‘ampere electricity’ is likely aimed at ensuring the Government of Syria can continue to regulate and profit from the electricity sector. In neighbouring Tartous, Governor Safwan Abu Saada stopped short of banning ‘amperes’, but on 20 April issued a letter to the Tartous City Council and the electricity company, accusing them of collusion with generator owners and demanding action on the theft of electricity, encroachment on public property, and the installation of cables on existing infrastructure. Private generators have spread throughout Syria as a result of the insufficient, and inconsistent, supply of electricity from power stations, though the high cost of fuel also makes them an expensive option. Energy prices have also recently spiked, following a November 2021 decision by the Ministry of Electricity to raise prices by between 100 and 800 percent based on usage (see: Syria Update 8 November 2021), impacting businesses particularly hard and causing many to consider closing. Aid actors should be aware that the price increases will have widespread impacts across the Syrian economy and exacerbate the cost-of-living crisis, with crackdowns on private generators likely to cause greater energy shortfalls. In the long run, recovery and stabilisation activities will be deeply impacted by the international community’s ability to identify gaps in service provision and navigate them, including by avoiding competing with well-connected war entrepreneurs (see: Beyond Checkpoints: Local Economic Gaps and the Political Economy of Syria’s Business Community).
Syrian Activists Form NGO to Defend LGBTQ+ Community
On 24 March, Syrian and international LGBTQ+ activists officially registered a new NGO in Geneva, Switzerland, to provide programmes and services targeting the Syrian LGBTQ+ community inside the country and in the diaspora. The Guardians of Equality Movement (GEM) was founded on 14 September 2021 and is one of the first NGOs to focus specifically on supporting and advocating for the Syrian LGBTQ+ community.
A much-needed step
Gender and sexual minorities in Syria have often been ignored or actively marginalised throughout the conflict. The Government of Syria’s legal code and repressive political system criminalises homosexuality and outlaws most forms of LGBTQ+ activism and organisation, while conservative social attitudes continue to provoke hostility towards LGBTQ+ individuals (see: LGBTQ+ Syria: Experiences, Challenges, and Priorities for the Aid Sector). In countries outside Syria, particularly those in the region, LGBTQ+ Syrians may face a double hostility based on their nationality and their sexual or gender identity (see: The Future of LGBTQ+ Syria and the Aid Response). Additional advocacy and programming to support LGBTQ+ Syrians is sorely needed. Nevertheless, the road is long and the challenges significant. To provide an LGBTQ+-sensitive aid response in Syria, donors and aid actors should look to raise awareness and carry out advocacy through existing aid frameworks and the media, as well as fund capacity building, protection and safety, and health care initiatives. Programming should be undertaken with an understanding of key contextual considerations, inclusive conflict-sensitivity frameworks, and in dialogue with LGBTQ+ individuals and communities on the ground — in Syria and beyond.
Intra-Kurdish Tensions Persist in Syria’s Northeast Despite Calls for Detente
In late April, at least four attacks were reported on the offices of the Kurdish National Congress (KNC). In the latest attack, which took place on 20 April in Ain al Arab (Kobani), offices of both the KNC and Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S) were set on fire. The KNC accused the Ciwanên Şoreşger, a youth group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Democratic Union Party (PYD), which shares power in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, of orchestrating attacks. The latter categorically denied its involvement, adding that its security forces, the Asayish, have launched investigations to identify and apprehend the perpetrators. The string of attacks, as well as urging from the KNC, prompted the United States Embassy to Syria to voice concern.
One step forward, two back
Direct attacks on party offices have been a recurring phenomenon in Autonomous Administration areas in recent years and may further complicate US efforts to bring about meaningful Intra-Kurdish dialogue. US efforts to advance political reconciliation between Kurdish rival parties including the PYD and KNC, which began in late 2020, have rarely succeeded amid mutual recriminations. Reconciliation between Kurdish rivals in northeast Syria is seen as critical to the stability of the Kurdish-run enclave (see: Syria Update 21 March 2022), particularly against the backdrop of the recent Turkish military operation against the PKK in northern Iraq, which has yet to bleed over into northeast Syria directly. The US’s inability to successfully mediate current tensions will undermine its endeavours to play a key role in political reform in northeast Syria down the line, while intra-party tensions may impact broader access dynamics, including the functioning of the main crossings into northeast Syria.
Islamic State Spokesperson Announces “The Revenge Battle for the Two Sheikhs” Campaign
On 17 April, Islamic State (IS) spokesperson Abu Umar al-Muhajir made his second audio statement, in which he announced the launch of a campaign dubbed “The Revenge Battle for the Two Sheikhs,” to avenge the killing of his predecessor Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, and former IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. With the world occupied by the Ukraine war, al-Muhajir called on his supporters to wage attacks in the US and Europe. The spokesperson reiterated the organisation’s intention to free its members held in prisons, further stressing the threat of small- or large-scale attacks targeting SDF-controlled prisons and al-Hol camp, which hosts some IS sympathisers, members, and families.
Fear of IS resurgence continues
There is nothing unique about the IS spokesperson’s announcement, as the group has maintained a habit of launching revenge campaigns following the killing of its leaders since its establishment in 2006. The goal of these campaigns is to show the group’s relevance, boost its supporters’ morale, and disrupt regional security. Following al-Muhajir’s announcement, IS activities have significantly increased, reaching 132 attacks in different countries including Iraq, Niger, Nigeria, Congo, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan. In Syria alone, 19 IS-related incidents have been reported, targeting checkpoints of the Asayish east of Ar-Raqqa, and the SDF in northern Deir-ez-Zor. Additionally, IS killed or injured 17 soldiers affiliated with the Syrian Government and its supporting militias in Deir-ez-Zor and Ar-Raqqa this week. The attacks constitute a major escalation in the IS insurgency, following the al-Sina’a prison takeover in Al-Hasakeh on 20 January (see: Syria Update 31 January 2022). While the prospect of re-establishing its “caliphate” remains far-fetched, the group retains its sleeper cells and lone wolves who can continue to disrupt local and regional stability.
Syrian State Health Budgeting Remains Opaque
A WHO Damascus Health Sector coordination meeting in early April highlighted systemic challenges in the Syrian health system. Key takeaways included lack of transparency around budgets, severe underfunding, and an absence of state accountability. In particular, the Syrian Government appears to be obscuring its own health spending and increasing reliance on donor funding, while simultaneously increasing the role of private companies in the health sector – a role many of Syria’s business elite seem only too happy to fill. Indeed, multiple new companies with a focus on the health sector have been registered in Syria since 2020 to operate health facilities or supply drugs and medical equipment.
Public-private partnerships are stepping into all sectors in Syria as the Government retreats, stymied by limited finances and poor economic outlook (see: Syria in 2022: New Approaches for an Evolving Crisis). While such privatisation strategies extend back to the 1990s, the phenomenon has accelerated during the conflict and is tied to war economy dynamics, with companies closely linked to the Government of Syria benefitting the most (see: Beyond Checkpoints: Local Economic Gaps and the Political Economy of Syria’s Business Community). Reduced subsidies and market-driven service provision are likely to impact the poorest hardest, with beneficiaries reporting substantial fees to access healthcare, particularly through private health facilities. For the aid sector, this raises once again the need for conditionality and scrutiny. Aid actors should urge the Government to support those most in need, while also ensuring that international funds are not used to line the pockets of its supporters. On a more general level, a state disinvestment in health would inevitably create a gap that is unlikely to go bridged without international support, heightening the need for scrutiny of aid implementation, even in critical sectors such as health.
New Syrian Cybercrime Law Introduces Harsh Penalties for Criticism of the State
On 18 April 2022, President Bashar al-Assad issued Law No. 20 to update the existing cybercrime legislation of 2012. The law states that, starting mid-next month, network service providers and users in Syria will face penalties of up to 15 years in prison and fines of 12,000 USD for various cybercrimes. Although the law covers online crimes such as bullying, fraud, information theft, electronic card breaches, and breaches of privacy, the most serious legal and financial repercussions relate to drug trafficking and criticising the constitution, the state, and its economic policies.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
Although the new law tackles issues related to the security of citizens, it appears to be another mechanism for the Syrian Government to tighten its grip on cyberspace. In June 2012, the Government issued Decision 290, which defined terms and conditions of using the internet, as well as punishments for internet-related crimes. The updated law follows other similar efforts, including a bill that introduced a minimum six-month jail sentence to citizens residing in Syria for spreading disinformation and undermining the Government’s reputation (see: Syria Update 28 March 2022). In September 2021, the head of the Government’s cybercrime department stated that emojis could be admitted as evidence of violence against the state and that using them to criticise the Government was a punishable crime. Given the power of social media, which amplified efforts towards political change in the early years of the uprising, the Syrian Government seems to realise the need to ramp up its efforts to curb freedom of expression online. Such laws further codify the suppression of freedom of speech in Syria, putting at risk citizens as well as aid actors working in the country.
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..
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