Syria Update Digest
More than 11 years after the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, the refugee crisis it engendered continues to raise challenges for the EU and countries at its borders. From growing hostility towards refugees in neighbouring states to continued hardening of borders across Europe, Syrians are stuck between a rock and a hard place as return to Syria remains impossible. Recent events, and the emergence of a displacement crisis in Europe larger than any since the Second World War, highlight the continued salience of the Syrian refugee crisis and the need for a more comprehensive regional displacement framework. Resources will need to be focused on assisting refugees attempting to navigate increasingly hostile legal systems and bureaucracies in destination countries, while timely aid delivery will be needed to ensure refugees are not hardest hit by global economic slowdowns and high levels of inflation.
- On 9 June, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad conducted a wide-ranging interview with Russia Today, a Russian state-owned media outlet — his first interview in 2022. Al-Assad signalled a softening tone toward the Gulf, hinted at coordination with the SDF ahead of a possible Turkish offensive, and, for the first time, attributed blame for Syrian’s daily woes on corruption and the weakness of state institutions.
- Since late May, the spectre of a Turkish military operation in northern Syria has loomed on the horizon, following multiple escalatory Turkish official statements and military deployments across the lines of conflict in the north. Despite Turkey’s insistence on a new military operation in Syria, its likelihood is still uncertain.
- On 6 June, member states of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) sanctioned the Al-Qaterji brothers and their eponymous Al-Qaterji Company over their involvement with facilitating the fuel and wheat trade with Islamic State (IS). As the Qaterjis already faced US sanctions over their involvement in trade with IS, the gesture by TFTC is largely symbolic, though it suggests continuing hestitance on the part of Saudi Arabia towards full normalisation with Damascus.
- Multiple Israeli airstrikes allegedly targeting Iran-backed forces have hit areas in and around Damascus in recent weeks, the most recent of which damaged Damascus International Airport, leading to its closure and flights diverted. The latest airstrike highlights the continued risk to civilians and civilian infrastructure posed by Israel’s campaign against Iran in Syria.
- On 29 May, the Syrian Telecommunication and Postal Regulatory Authority approved a rise in prices for telecommunications services, averaging 50 percent. The growing cost of services presents an ongoing burden for Syrians, who face deepening poverty, and will increase aid sector operational costs.
- On 6 June, Syria’s Minister of Petroleum, Bassam Tomeh, inaugurated the first gas well in the Zumlat al-Muhr gas field, located 40 km west of Tadmor (Palmyra) city, Homs Governorate. Even when fully operational, domestic gas production will remain far below electricity production needs.
More than 11 years after the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, the refugee crisis it engendered continues to raise challenges for the EU and countries at its borders, as recent events demonstrate. From growing hostility towards refugees in neighbouring states to continued hardening of borders across Europe, Syrians are stuck between a rock and a hard place as return to Syria remains impossible. With the surge of refugees into Europe caused by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine having become the most prominent displacement issue for Western governments (see: Crisis in Ukraine: Impacts for Syria), international pressure to improve conditions for Syrian refugees, already at a low ebb, may become even more limited. Faced with limited options, aid actors working on the Syrian refugee issue must make the best of a bad hand and push towards a comprehensive regional displacement framework that recognises that, because Syria will likely remain unsafe for returns, aid practitioners and political actors must deal with the long-term displacement concerns of regional states, and refugees themselves, more seriously.
No security for Syrians — even outside Syria
Turkey, which hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees in absolute terms, is witnessing a climate of heightened anti-refugee sentiment as the country gears up for its 2023 presidential election. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is increasing talk of the ‘voluntary return’ of Syrian refugees (see: Syria Update 3 May 2022), even as it accuses the opposition of fomenting racism for proposing similar steps. Recent popular violence includes the killing of a young Syrian man in Istanbul by a group of Turkish youths on 6 June and an unprovoked attack on a elderly Syrian woman in Gaziantep — which became a headline issue among Syrians and local authorities — the week before. These incidents received significant local and international media coverage, and attitudes and policies towards Syrian refugees seem likely to shape the contours of the upcoming election.
Syrians attempting to reach Europe continue to face harsh border control, and as reported by Frontex in May, Syrians continue to be one of the most heavily represented national groups on the migration routes that have seen the largest year-over-year increases, namely the Western Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the English Channel. Since the beginning of June, 50 Syrian refugees have been stranded at the border between Greece and Turkey on an islet in the Evros river, going days without supplies, with Greece — in the middle of constructing a border wall — refusing to allow them entry and Turkey refusing to readmit them. A similar situation at the Belarus-Poland border in recent months was highlighted by a 7 June Human Rights Watch report, which documents the challenging conditions faced by refugees at the border crossing. Polish border guard forces have often pushed refugees and asylum seekers back across the border into Belarus, where they face harsh treatment and human rights abuses by the Belarusian border services. Further south, Lebanese authorities apprehended 64 would-be refugees — many of them Syrians — trying to flee Lebanon’s spiralling economic crisis by sailing to Europe on 7 June.
Meanwhile, domestic responses in the EU and other Western countries have in many cases become increasingly strict. For instance, the British government has proceeded with plans to place asylum seekers — including Syrians — on a plane to Rwanda scheduled to depart on 14 June, in the first tranche of deportations under its policy of forcing asylum seekers to stay in that country. Denmark, meanwhile, has received criticism for its policy of “zero asylum seekers” and its treatment of Syrian refugees, including by non-renewal of residency permits. Treatment of Syrian refugees is an issue even in South Korea.
No path for safe returns
Despite the claims of the Government of Syria, and of some European states, no area of Syria is safe for refugee return. While active conflict between forces with different areas of control appears to have largely frozen, tensions remain high across the north of Syria with weekly, if not daily, incidents of cross-lines violence (see: Syria Update 7 March 2022). Much of Syria’s south remains unstable, with assassinations and targeted killings appearing to grow in number amid security chaos and a growing trade in drugs (see: Syria Update 6 June 2022). Islamic (IS) State continues to present a threat in central and eastern Syria, and recently claimed responsibility for bombings in Rural Damascus (see: Syria Update 23 May 2022). Even in the most seemingly stable Government of Syria-held areas, such as Damascus and the coastal governorates, arbitrary arrests and human rights abuses remain a distinct threat, as do new legal mechanisms like the so-called cyber-crimes law, despite recent amnesties (see: Syria Update 9 May 2022). Beyond this, there is widespread poverty, a cost-of-living crisis, a shattered economy, and a growing risk of hunger and famine (see: Syria Update 10 January 2022).
No solutions in sight
Recent events, and the emergence of a displacement crisis in Europe larger than any since the Second World War, highlight the continued salience of the Syrian refugee crisis and the need for a more comprehensive regional displacement framework. Syria, which will likely remain unsafe for returns for the foreseeable future, presents a unique displacement problem, with millions of displaced persons primarily spread across three domains: Europe, neighbouring states, and within Syria itself. Long-term solutions focused on providing stability and certainty for refugees, labour market integration, and access to public services must be paired with support for addressing documentation needs and HLP rights, as well as the displacement concerns of regional states and alleviating the perceived burdens of refugee hosting.
Absent political will in Western countries and international organisations to adopt welcoming refugee policies, aid actors are in a bind with few good options. Perhaps the most critical activity for aid actors will be to continually message officials and electorates alike concerning the humanitarian consequences of a failure to adopt comprehensive displacement policies, and to sound the alarm regarding the destabilising impacts of refugee politics in neighbouring states. Resources will need to be focused on assisting refugees attempting to navigate increasingly hostile legal systems and bureaucracies in destination countries, while timely aid delivery will be needed to ensure refugees are not hardest hit by global economic slowdowns and high levels of inflation. In the long term, regional states will be hard-pressed to accept the burden of refugee hosting by force, but they may be incentivised to create more sustainable resettlement and reintegration models that serve their needs, as well as those of refugees.
In Syria itself, despite the unsafe conditions, the likelihood of increased inflows of returning refugees will have to be accounted for. Small numbers of refugees may be ousted on an individual basis from current host countries into Government-controlled territory, where they may face unwanted attention from security services and forced conscription for military-aged males — to say nothing of the challenges of survival in a context of economic meltdown. Potentially much-larger movements from Turkey into northern Syria may also occur. Returning populations are likely to struggle to adapt to a new milieu as they are resettled en masse into prefabricated camps, with a high likelihood of tensions between returnees and local communities. Protection and livelihood challenges are likely to be rampant. Practitioners must be prepared for all of these possibilities. Until shifts in policy are effected, the already decade-old Syrian refugee crisis will persist.
Whole of Syria Review
Al-Assad Gives Russia Today Interview, His First in 2022
On 9 June, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a wide-ranging interview — his first in 2022 — to the Russian state-owned media outlet Russia Today. Touching on Syria’s relations with other Arab states, al-Assad stated that he will be “happy to visit any Arab country” (see: Syria Update 21 March 2022). In relation to tension on Syria’s border with Turkey, he remained insistent on the withdrawal of the Turkish “occupier” from the north while describing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as “agents” of the US, although he admitted, “sometimes we have to engage even with agents.” Also of note, although al-Assad pinned the blame for Syria’s economic malaise on sanctions, as he has done consistently in recent years, he also pointed to the economic drag caused by corruption and weak state institutions.
Letting bygones be bygones with the Gulf?
Although the interview contained no major surprises, it does advertise a subtle shift in several key areas. First, al-Assad’s statements concerning relations with Gulf states widen the scope for regional rapprochement. So far, Syria has been unwilling to publicly take the first step to restore ties with the Arab neighbours who cut off relations following the 2011 uprising, arguing that they, not Syria, broke off relations in the first instance. Nonetheless, al-Assad’s softening tone puts Syria on a forward-looking trajectory with its Gulf neighbours, demonstrating the extent to which Damascus covets rapprochement, and will continue to seek the validation of foreign visits as it courts investment, particularly the UAE. Second, al-Assad’s comments concerning the situation in northern Syria hint at the possibility of renewed coordination with the SDF should Turkey follow through with its threat of a fresh military offensive, a pattern that has to some extent played out in the past (see: Syria Update 30 May 2022).
The final point of note, and perhaps the most important for the aid community, is al-Assad’s reference to the corruption that he claims has been enabled in Syria by enfeebled state institutions. No doubt, Syrians have been exposed to ever greater financial burdens as the ranks of civil servants have been forced by low state wages to demand transactional bribes and other payoffs. Al-Assad’s remarks on this point may resonate, but they are also likely to fuel an expectation of some action on the part of the central government. While al-Assad refrained from promising any specific reforms, his comments put the issue on the agenda. The interview may therefore be an indicator of future efforts to force through governmental reform, albeit on unknown terms.
Update on Turkey’s Potential Military Operation in Syria
Since late May, the spectre of a Turkish military operation in northern Syria has loomed on the horizon, following multiple escalatory Turkish official statements and military deployments across the lines of conflict in the north. On 23 May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated in a televised address that Turkey would soon launch a new military operation in northern Syria to combat “the terrorism threat” along Turkey’s southern border (see: Syria Update 30 May 2022). On 1 June, Erdogan announced that Tall Refaat and Menbij will be the first targets of a planned Turkish military operation into northern Syria (see: Syria Update 6 June 2022). COAR is closely watching the issue, and we provide here an updated assessment of Turkey’s potential incursion and a brief analysis of how actors may pursue their interests.
Turkey requires hard-to-obtain US and Russian consent to launch any operation; thus far, Washington and Moscow appear to have maintained their opposition.
- The US refuses to give a green light. The US has maintained its clear opposition to any Turkish military operation in northern Syria. While Washington has recognised “Ankara’s legitimate security concerns on its border,” it is concerned that any “new offensive would further undermine regional stability.” The US has been clear that it is unwilling to recapitulate its approach to similar Turkish threats in October 2019, when it withdrew its forces from northern Syria and allowed Turkey to launch its Peace Spring operation, through which it established control over Ras Al Ain and Tal Abyad (see: Syria Update 9 October 2019).
- Russia bolsters its presence but woos Turkey. Russia’s mixed messages with regards to Turkey’s military plan have led to different, and sometimes contradictory, analyses. On 7 June, Russian and Syrian Government forces reportedly bolstered their presence in northern Syria, particularly in Tall Refaat, Menbij, the southern outskirts of Ain Al Arab (Kobani), and Ain Issa. On 3 June, Russian military officials in Syria reportedly gave assurances to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazloum Abdi that Moscow would oppose any Turkish operation in Syria. Nevertheless, on his 8 June visit to Ankara, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated his country’s “understanding” of Turkish security concerns along the Syrian border, an important change of tone. For Moscow, the ideal scenario is to pressure the SDF to cut a deal with the Syrian Government, allowing Damascus to re-establish control over Autonomous Administration areas in return for staving off Turkey’s offensive. However, the SDF is insistent on maintaining distance from the Government of Syria, unless driven by force. While Abdi has openly expressed his willingness to coordinate with the Government and called on Damascus to use its air defence systems to fend off any Turkish operation, the extent to which this will lead to significant cooperation remains to be seen.
Saudi-led Terrorist Financing Targeting Center Sanctions Syria-based Al-Qaterji Company
On 6 June, member states of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) sanctioned Muhammad Baraa al-Qaterji and Hussam Rushdi al-Qaterji, along with their eponymous Al-Qaterji Company, as being affiliated with terrorist organisations over their involvement with facilitating the trade of fuel and wheat between IS and the Government of Syria. The TFTC, a Gulf-led organisation based in Riyadh and co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia, targeted a total of 16 individuals, entities, and groups affiliated with a variety of regional terrorist organisations in its sanctions designation. The TFTC’s sanctioning of the Qaterjis comes several years after the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the brothers. Notably, while the US announcement of the TFTC sanctions mentioned only the Qaterjis’ involvement with IS, the Saudi announcement also highlighted their cooperation with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a reason for their targeting.
A setback for normalisation efforts?
As the Qaterjis already faced US sanctions over their involvement in trade with IS, the gesture by TFTC is largely symbolic with little practical or economic significance. Nevertheless, the sanctioning of prominent economic entities closely linked to the Government of Syria — Hussam al-Qaterji, for example, was a Member of Parliament until 2020 — indicates continuing hesitance on the part of Saudi Arabia towards full normalisation with Damascus. The move comes at a time when the Syrian Government is trying to restore its relations with the Gulf states and has had some success in doing so with the United Arab Emirates (see: Syria Update 21 March 2022). Iran’s influence in Syria remains a major impediment to the restoration of relations between Damascus and the Gulf (see: Syria Update 28 March 2022), particularly for Saudi Arabia, due to the two countries’ regional rivalry. The TFTC sanctions came shortly after the US Treasury Department targeted an international oil-smuggling and money-laundering network led by IRGC Quds Force officials, which has facilitated the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil.
Israel Carries Out Multiple Strikes on Syria
Over the past week, the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) has reported multiple Israeli airstrikes in the vicinity of Damascus. The latest strike occurred in the early morning hours of 10 June near Damascus International Airport, reportedly causing one civilian injury and damaging the airport’s infrastructure. Flights to and from the airport were suspended. While Syrian state media claimed the interruptions at the airport were due to ‘technical failure’, other sources reported that the strikes damaged facilities, including a runway. Syrian opposition media reported that the attack hit Iranian militia positions, resulting in an unconfirmed number of casualties, all of which were described as Iranian militiamen. The attack comes just days after an Israeli airstrike in southern Damascus on the night of 6 June, and follows on the heels of the first combined exercise of the Russian and Syrian militaries since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In April, Russian forces launched a desultory surface-to-air missile volley at Israeli warplanes after a strike near Masyaf in the northwest of the country (see: Syria Update 16 May 2022), although the engagement failed to deter the multiple Israeli airstrikes launched in May (see: Syria Update 23 May 2022).
Not your usual airstrike
To those following the Syrian conflict, Israeli airstrikes — intended to check Iranian influence and the activity of pro-Iranian militias in Syria — are nothing new. The damage to civilian infrastructure caused by the latest strikes may signal an escalation, though it is unclear whether the damaged runway was the intended target. The frequency of Israeli airstrikes can in part be attributed to Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, which has created a power vacuum that has incentivised the strengthening of Iranian and Syrian relations. Nevertheless, Russia’s Foreign Ministry “strongly condemned” the “provocative attack on civilian infrastructure” and emphasised that Israeli shelling of Syrian territory is “completely unacceptable” and “in violation of the basic norms of international law”, a much more forceful condemnation of Israeli strikes than delivered on previous occasions (see: Syria Update 13 December 2021). While possibly aimed at pressuring Israel vis-à-vis its position towards Russia’s war in Ukraine, a change in Russia’s usually acquiescent position towards Israeli airstrikes may lead to further use of its advanced air defence systems, leading to a substantial change and escalation in the nature of Israel’s interventions in Syria. The possibility of an escalated Israeli campaign against Iranian and Iran-linked infrastructure in Syria should be taken seriously by aid actors and factored into planning.
Government Increases Telecommunications Prices by 50 Percent
On 29 May, the Syrian Telecommunication and Postal Regulatory Authority approved an increase in prices for telecommunications services, averaging 50 percent. The price increases were reportedly requested by Syria’s three main telecommunications companies — Syriatel and MTN (mobile service providers) and the state-owned Syrian Telecommunications Company (STC; fixed telephone lines) — ostensibly to allow them to improve their services. While the director of the STC marketing department, Firas al-Baden, said that the price increases were necessary to avoid “a large deficit in the balance of the telecommunications sector”, Syrians on social media questioned this, contrasting the significant profits of the telecommunications companies in recent years with their continuing poor service.
Same old story
The increased cost of services exacerbates the financial burden of Syrians, who face a serious economic crisis and deepening poverty. The telecommunications price increase came shortly after prices for “instant” passports were nearly tripled, and follows recent increases in fuel (see: Syria Update 23 May 2022) and electricity prices (see: Syria Update 3 May 2022), as the cash-strapped Government of Syria looks to bolster its revenues and reduce its spending on subsidies (see: Syria in 2022: New Aid Approaches for an Evolving Crisis). While Wafa Telecom, a new mobile network operator, is set to enter Syria’s telecommunications market later this year (see: Syria Update 28 February 2022), it is unlikely to lead to substantial improvements in service delivery, and will likely rather function as a new source of revenue extraction for the STC, which is its third-largest shareholder. Alongside the worsening of the Syrian population’s cost-of-living crisis, service price increases and the removal of subsidies will increase aid actors’ operational costs within the country, requiring additional funding or budget reallocations.
New Gas Well Enters into Operation in Government Territories
On 6 June, Syria’s Minister of Petroleum, Bassam Tomeh, inaugurated the first gas well in the Zumlat al-Muhr gas field, located 40 km west of Tadmor (Palmyra) city, Homs Governorate. The field was reportedly discovered in late 2021, and is the first new gas field developed by the Government of Syria since 2009. With a capacity of 250,000 cubic metres per day (cbmd), the well entered operation after it was connected to the network linking nearby Al-Shaer gas field, Syria’s largest, with the Ebla Gas Processing Plant, also west of Tadmor. Its capacity is expected to increase to 600,000 cbmd by the end of 2022, when two other wells in the field will become active.
A drop in an ocean of need
The most pressing application of extracted gas in Syria is for electrical power generation, but the new wells will meet only a fraction of the requirement. The new gas field, when fully operational and properly integrated into the supply network, could marginally improve the availability of electricity in the country, but local production of gas remains — and will remain — far below needs. At the end of 2021, Syria reported a need for 20 million cbmd of gas, with only 7.5 million cbmd available from local production. Power networks and many plants have been damaged or fallen into disrepair during the course of the war; their rehabilitation and operation often require scarce foreign investment. Russian and Iranian investors are the most dominant actors in the energy sector in Syria, and contracts have also been announced with Emirati companies. However, projects often fail to be implemented, and the inconsistency and lack of transparency in government reporting restrict independent analysis. Rehabilitation of the Syrian energy sector is thus unlikely to make significant progress in the current political conditions and, new wells or not, aid actors should not expect major improvements in the sector anytime soon.
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.