Syria Update Digest
Several events in recent weeks have highlighted a growing water crisis across the whole of Syria, with access to both drinking water and water for irrigation severely curtailed. Syria is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, resulting from its heavy dependence on rainfed agriculture, long-term water mismanagement, and the decade-long conflict’s destruction of critical infrastructure and population displacement. With droughts expected to increase in frequency and intensity, donors and aid actors in the Syria response will face the likelihood of long-term humanitarian needs relating to water and food supplies. They must also navigate the ambiguous boundaries between rehabilitation and reconstruction as they seek to mitigate future climate risk in activities that adapt agriculture and infrastructure to continued water scarcity.
- This is the third update on Turkey’s potential military operation in northern Syria (see: Syria Update 20 June 2022). Developments include Iran sending mixed messages and Turkey’s decision to allow the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, which may increase tensions with Russia.
- On 19 June, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) advanced into the Turkish-controlled “Olive Branch” areas in northwestern Syria following two days of heavy clashes between two Turkish-backed Syrian National Army factions. While the group retreated shortly thereafter, the development reflects HTS’s desire to expand its influence and challenges Ankara’s claim to have brought stability to the area.
- In the last weeks of June, Islamic State (IS) elements conducted a series of operations in northern and eastern Syria targeting both Government of Syria and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) troops. Amid the threat of a renewed Turkish incursion, military movements from the Government of Syria and the SDF to counter it may provide IS with the freedom of action to conduct further operations.
- On 26 June, security forces in al-Hol camp reported discovering the decapitated body of a woman, reportedly at least the sixteenth to be killed in the camp this year. While fingers are quick to point to IS, there is not enough information emerging from the camp to determine who is behind the spate of killings.
- On 21 June, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria signed an agreement to transmit 650 million cubic metres of natural gas per year from Egypt to Lebanon via Syria — a deal that still awaits US approval. Should the arrangement be approved, it will be a step forward in Syria’s regional economic reintegration and will hint at a pragmatic softening of the US approach to Syria, albeit without indicating further changes.
- On 28 June, Damascus Governorate issued a new zoning plan to regulate lands east of Damascus, allowing for the confiscation of informal housing and the reappropriation of farming lands for the construction of residential administrative zones. Such development plans are cementing the displacement of Syrians who lose their properties.
- Over the past week, Hamas announced intentions to rebuild relations with Damascus, and Damascus recognised the pro-Russian republics in eastern Ukraine. The geostrategic implications of this rhetorical solidification of relations among a group of heavily marginalised entities remain unclear, yet it is extremely unlikely that they will provide the Syrian population with badly needed support.
Several events in recent weeks have highlighted a growing water crisis across the whole of Syria, with access to both drinking water and water for irrigation severely curtailed. From “hydropolitics” and accusations that Turkey is weaponising the flow of the Euphrates River in the north to conflict-related infrastructure damage and the high cost of fuel disrupting networks in the south and on the coast, Syria is facing multiple pressures on its water systems that threaten the health of its food supply. Access to drinking water has also been severely curtailed — the result of poor maintenance, poor management, and subsidy cuts. Syria is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and with droughts expected to increase in frequency and intensity, donors and aid actors in the Syria response will face the likelihood of long-term humanitarian needs relating to water and food supplies. Donors will need to consider interventions within an early recovery framework, although there are no easy answers as many donors prioritise the rehabilitation of existing systems despite the pressure to carry out more impactful, climate-resilient adaptations that will future-proof agriculture and infrastructure against continued water scarcity.
Thirsty crops and thirsty people
On 18 June, the Civil Council of Raqqa issued an order limiting maize farmers to sowing 25 percent of their arable land amid limited water supplies. According to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the average flow rate of the Euphrates river was around 273 cubic metres per second, well below the minimum flow level of 500 cubic metres per second agreed between Syria and Turkey in 1987, and the water level of the Tabqa dam — which provides electricity and water to northeast Syria — dropped by 36 percent in May. While blame is regularly laid at Turkey’s feet (see: Syria Update 10 May 2021), declining water levels in the Euphrates are a consequence of long-term climate change. Overexploitation and pollution with industrial effluent from the poorly regulated oil sector (see: Syria Update 21 February 2022) is also responsible for reduced water capacity in the Euphrates Basin.
In coastal areas, in which summer crops such as peppers and eggplants are grown, farmers have appealed to the Government of Syria for assistance with irrigation, having not received fuel allocations for a month and a half. The Syrian Government has increased its purchase prices for cotton and tobacco, two economically important crops, but overall yields are low and the higher purchase prices are unlikely to compensate for the sharp increase in diesel prices and reductions in allocations needed to fuel irrigation systems and water pumps. With markets in turmoil following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (see: Crisis in Ukraine: Impacts for Syria), Syria will likely struggle to procure strategic commodities internationally, and will face prices largely unaffordable for the cash-strapped state.
Beyond agriculture, access to safe and affordable drinking water is a growing concern across many governorates of Syria. In Turkish-influenced northern Aleppo, the Syrian Response Coordination Group has warned of an ongoing water crisis with high prices for water barrels and a dependence on untreated well water. The region has been cut off from the Ain al-Bayda pumping station since 2016, when Government of Syria forces recaptured eastern Aleppo, and has since relied on drilling wells, which has reduced groundwater levels. In As-Sweida in southern Syria, residents have had limited access to drinking water for three months due to a lack of fuel for operating pumps, with 15 districts reportedly completely cut off from water for drinking and domestic use. There is also a lack of tankers to transport drinking water, with high fuel prices increasing the cost of delivery. In early June, the Syrian Trading Establishment halved its allocations of water throughout Government of Syria territories, while in late June the General Company for Water Bottling raised bottled water prices twice over 24 hours, citing increased input costs and a rise in electricity prices.
The water-food-energy nexus of need
The scarcity and high cost of water, food, and energy are mutually reinforcing — underpinning Syria’s cost-of-living crisis and undermining its stalled economic recovery. While external factors such as Turkish hydropolitics, global fuel prices, and climate change play a significant role in Syria’s current water crisis, heavy dependence on rainfed agriculture, long-term water mismanagement and overexploitation, and the decade-long conflict’s destruction of critical infrastructure have left Syria particularly unsuited to meet its current challenges. Last year’s severe drought has had a long-term impact on Syria’s agriculture, with this year’s above-average rainfall having had little impact on the health of crop lands. As a recent report from the European University Institute makes clear, the impacts of climate change will exacerbate Syria’s water crisis going forward, requiring adaptation to a new, drier reality. This will likely necessitate a shift away from cultivating water-intensive crops such as wheat and cotton — food and cash staples in Syria — as well as enhanced water resource management and irrigation techniques.
Although the Government of Syria has at various points noted the urgent need for rehabilitation of water and electricity networks, it is nonetheless unable to prioritise such investments, and US sanctions provide obstacles against the import of some equipment needed for the recovery of the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector. It is unclear to what extent donors can prioritise climate-forward activities designed to build resilience. Although rehabilitation is now broadly accepted in non-Government areas, climate-sensitive improvements and other adaptations that may be needed for long-term resilience may run afoul of some definitions of reconstruction. Geographic divisions are also in play. While the recent US sanctions waiver for northeast Syria may provide the space for aid action and private investment in the country’s most productive agricultural region (see: Syria Update 16 May 2022), its benefits are unlikely to extend to those living in Government of Syria areas. Nevertheless, donors and aid actors working in the Syria response can and should prioritise climate-conscious early recovery programming where possible and recognise that without finding the means of bolstering sustainability and resilience in the face of climate change, humanitarian needs in food and water are likely to grow.
Whole of Syria Review
Update on Turkey’s Potential Military Operation in Syria
This is the third update on Turkey’s potential military operation in northern Syria (see: Syria Update 20 June 2022). There have been slight yet important changes in the positioning of major actors as Turkey continues to insist it will carry out the operation.
- Iran sends mixed messages. On 27 June, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told reporters after talks in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart that Tehran “understand[s] Turkey’s security concerns very well” and that “maybe a special operation might be needed” and “Turkey’s security concerns must be tackled fully and permanently.” Nevertheless, during a 2 July visit to Damascus, Amir-Abdollahian restated Iran’s opposition to the operation.
- Russia maintains its opposition, at least rhetorically. On 20 June, the Russian President’s Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, said that Moscow will continue its efforts to prevent Turkey from launching a new attack on Syrian territory. On 22 June, Russia’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentyev restated Moscow’s opposition to the operation and called on other Arab states to reject Turkey’s plans, while acknowledging Turkey’s concerns.
- Turkey is waiting for the “right time.” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey will start its “planned new military operations as soon as preparations on the Syrian border are completed.”
- NATO’s expansion may change the calculus. Turkey’s decision to allow the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO may increase tensions with Russia and harden its position. Additionally, it may prompt the US to adopt a more accommodating position vis-à-vis Turkey’s military aspirations in Syria.
- The SDF may merge with the Syrian Government forces. Ilham Ahmad, co-leader of the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political wing, raised the possibility of the two forces merging as Russian officials pleaded with Damascus and Syrian Kurdish officials to work together. Negotiations face long odds, as Damascus would likely refuse to countenance the SDF’s demands for autonomy within the armed forces.
A First, HTS Advances into Turkish-Controlled Olive Branch Areas
On 19 June, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) advanced into the Turkish-controlled “Olive Branch” areas in northwestern Syria for the first time in the Syrian conflict, briefly seizing multiple villages in Afrin’s southern and southwestern countryside and reportedly reaching within 5 kilometres of Afrin city. HTS claimed that the move was designed to put an end to the deadly infighting between Ahrar al-Sham-Eastern Sector (ASES) and the Third Legion, two factions operating under the banner of the Syrian National Army (SNA). On the ground, however, the HTS intervention supported ASES against the Third Legion, which had launched a series of attacks seizing military bases and taking dozens of ASES fighters prisoner in rural Al Bab and Jarablus City in the Turkish-controlled Euphrates Shield areas. Reportedly, Turkey mediated a deal putting an end to the violence and requiring the warring factions to move back to their previous positions.
Who can provide security?
HTS’s unprecedented military incursion into Turkish-controlled areas challenges Ankara’s claim of having ushered in stability and underscores HTS’s desire to expand its influence beyond its borders. Pervasive infighting between and within SNA factions has complicated Ankara’s efforts to form a united military force to support its potential military operation in northeast Syria and its plan to return 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey (see: Syria Update 3 May 2022). The Turkish army has often quashed such incidents on an ad hoc basis without providing sustainable solutions for the intractable disputes between the SNA factions — a lapse that HTS may read as an opportunity to intervene and prove its capacity to provide stability in Turkish-controlled areas. By penetrating and weakening the SNA factions, HTS maintains its military hegemony in northwest Syria and ensures its superior position in any potential united military force that might emerge. Military factions in the north will likely continue to see infighting, complicating the security landscape and presenting distinct risks for aid programming.
IS Claims Several Attacks in Northern Syria
In the closing weeks of June, Islamic State (IS) affiliates conducted a series of operations in northern and eastern Syria, targeting both Government of Syria and SDF troops. On 20 June, at least eleven Government soldiers and two civilians were killed and several wounded in an attack on a civilian bus in the Jabal al-Bishri area of Ar-Raqqa Governorate. On 26 June, three members of the SDF’s Al-Sanadid forces were killed and four others wounded in an attack by motorcycle-riding gunmen near Ali Agha in Al-Hasakeh Governorate. IS claimed responsibility for both attacks. Further, on 30 June, media sources reported that IS cells managed to seize a small arms depot containing ammunition and individual weapons near al-Hol town, Al-Hasakeh Governorate.
Never let a crisis go to waste?
The IS attacks in Syria’s north show it continues to pose a far-reaching, though low-level, threat across several zones of control (see: Syria Update 23 May 2022). Amid the threat of a renewed Turkish incursion, military movements from the Government of Syria and the SDF to counter it may provide IS with the freedom of action to conduct further operations. Indeed, the SDF has previously warned that diverting attention and resources toward the threat of incursions may disrupt the fight against IS. For the time being, efforts to combat IS continue in various parts of the country. Russian forces and their supporting militias continue to comb the Badia, while the SDF, supported by the US-led International Coalition, have increased their operations to combat IS elements in the northeast. IS’s ability to recruit hinges on the deteriorating living conditions in northeast Syria and the Arab population’s dissatisfaction with their political representation and access to resources. Addressing the drivers of radicalisation and IS recruitment are as vital in the long term as military efforts to contain the threat (see: Countering Violent Extremism and Deradicalisation in Northeast Syria).
Amid Summer Heat and Scorpions, A Wave of Killings Shakes Al-Hol Camp
On 26 June, amid a wave of summer heat that has brought a surge in the population of scorpions and venomous snakes to al-Hol camp in eastern Al-Hasakeh, Asayish security forces reported discovering the body of a decapitated woman, a displaced person from Homs, in the sixth section of the camp. Her killer has not been identified. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), at least six other women have been murdered in the camp so far in June, and at least fifteen this year, in addition to at least seven male victims. The violence is having an exceedingly negative impact on children in the camp — some of whom have witnessed their mothers’ kidnappings or seen their discarded bodies — and is prompting UN officials to urge al-Hol’s dissolution.
Heart of darkness
While fingers are quick to point to IS, there is simply not enough information coming out of the camp to determine who is behind the murders. The same conditions that make al-Hol a breeding ground for violence, including gender-based violence — its size, crowding, and weak security; the presence of criminal and extremist groups; and the vulnerability of its inhabitants — make it a black hole for information. The number of female victims in recent months and the varying circumstances of their deaths may indicate multiple types of perpetrators with a range of motivations. The opacity surrounding the dynamics within al-Hol makes it extremely difficult for protection actors to identify and counter the culprits of violence. Since the political complexity of returns makes emptying the camp infeasible in the near-term (see: Mapping and Assessing Release and Reintegration Models from NE Syria Camps), aid sector actors should focus on enhancing information-gathering capabilities in the camp and delivering more effective protection services.
Lebanon, Syria, Egypt Sign Gas Import Agreement
On 21 June, representatives from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt met in Beirut to sign a long-planned deal to pipe 650 million cubic metres of natural gas per year from Egypt to Lebanon’s Deir Ammar power plant through the Arab Gas Pipeline, which passes through Jordan and Syria. The agreement is part of a wider effort by the US to boost electricity supplies to Lebanon, a key service gap that hobbles the Lebanese state’s budget and economy while plunging the country into frequent blackouts (see: Syria Update 31 January 2022). The Syrian Government will also benefit from the agreement, receiving in-kind compensation in the form of natural gas supplies. The deal is contingent on US support, with Egypt and Jordan anxious to avoid invoking sanctions owing to Syria’s role, and on financial approval from the World Bank, which previously agreed to fund the project on the condition that Lebanon make modifications to its energy sector. The amount of in-kind gas compensation Syria will receive is still unclear, but it is unlikely to cover the large shortfall in the country’s power needs (see: Syria Update 13 June 2022).
Will sanctions soften?
Washington’s final decision to approve or reject the deal, which was first announced in September 2021 (see: Syria Update 20 September 2021), will serve as a litmus test of its stance toward Syria. Suppressing Iran’s influence in the region by reducing the demand for Iranian fuel imports while addressing Lebanon’s energy crisis may be sufficient motivation for the shift in tack. If the arrangement is approved, it will be a step forward in Syria’s regional economic reintegration, although it is unlikely to hint at a broader softening of the US approach to Syria. Nonetheless, the main impediment to Syria’s regional rapprochement remains US sanctions, and any apparent softening in their application may lead to further appeals for waivers on the grounds of Syria’s importance to regional security or other regional priorities.
New Zoning Plans East of Damascus: More Displacement and No Place for Return?
On 28 June, Damascus Governorate issued Zoning Plan No. 106 to regulate land in the towns and neighbourhoods surrounding Damascus. The plan aims to “modify the urban character of real estate areas” east of Damascus City by redrawing the administrative boundary with Rural Damascus Governorate. This will essentially transform real estate in these towns from agricultural lands and informal settlements into residential administrative zones, paving the way for large-scale construction projects. Previously at the front lines between opposition and Government of Syria forces, these formerly opposition-controlled areas witnessed heavy destruction and are now largely void of inhabitants due to forced displacement. The Director of Organisation and Urban Planning in Damascus Governorate, Hassan Traboulsi, stated that the Government will not supply alternative housing for the residents of the affected areas but will provide shares in the new developments instead, pointing out that the area contains informal settlements that Law No. 23 allows the Government to confiscate for zoning purposes.
Reconstruction by confiscation
The Government’s development plans are cementing the displacement of Syrians who lose their properties in the zoning process while the economic and political elite profit. Property laws introduced since 2011 have caused many to lose their ownership rights while receiving little if any compensation. The real estate and redevelopment projects that follow these laws largely benefit business actors within Assad’s inner circle (see: Syria Update 27 September 2021). Around 40,000 currently reside in the areas under the zoning plan. The value of the shares offered by the Government under the new law remains uncertain, and it is unclear whether it will provide locals with the ability to secure other housing options, likely causing further waves of displacement, a process witnessed across other reconciled former opposition enclaves (see: Political Demographics: The Markings of the Government of Syria Reconciliation Measures in Eastern Ghouta). Amid calls for refugee returns (see: Syria Update June 20 2022), the recurring housing, land, and property rights violations by the Government of Syria raise the question of what exactly awaits returnees.
Hamas to Damascus, Damascus to Luhansk and Donetsk: Patching Relations Among Pariahs
On 28 June, the head of the Hamas Arab and Islamic Relations Portfolio announced that the movement would “restore its relationship with Damascus.” This decision comes after 10 years of severed ties due to Hamas’s support for the uprising in 2011. The announcement came alongside others, including the group’s pledge of allegiance to the so-called Axis of Resistance, which is led by Iran and includes the Government of Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Separately, on 27 June, Syria’s state news agency, SANA, reported that Damascus had recognised the “independence and sovereignty of the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic,” the regions of Ukraine largely occupied by Russia and pro-Russian separatists. Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted by “breaking off diplomatic relations with Syria,” and “imposing a trade embargo on Syria” and sanctions on “Syrian legal entities and individuals.”
Normalisation among the outcasts
The Government of Syria has been desperately seeking reintegration into the Arab League’s fold and the international economy. This exchange of recognition is unlikely to advance this mission; rather, it sends a clear message that Damascus will not sacrifice its commitment to its allies to seek badly needed economic support. Iran-backed Hamas, the Government of Syria, and the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk Republics all have a long way to go in order to be reintegrated, normalised, or — in the case of the breakaway Ukrainian territories — recognised by the global community. Damascus’s existing allies have little capacity to provide consequential economic support and help it to reintegrate into the international community. The geostrategic implications of this formal solidification of relations among a group of marginalised entities remain unclear, yet it is extremely unlikely that they will provide the Syrian population with the support it needs.
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.