Emboldened Self-Administration bids for greater power
Table of Contents
Emboldened Self-Administration bids for greater power
In Depth Analysis
In a barn-burning statement published on 2 January, Ilham Ahmad, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), laid out a bold 2021 agenda for the Self-Administration. Ahmad stated that the Self-Administration hopes to burnish its image “as the seat of shared democracy in Syria, which is our joint project with the Syrian opposition and all parties [vying for] a solution [to the conflict].” However, the core proposition presented by Ahmad is not multi-party rapprochement, but triumphalism. The program lays out how the Self-Administration seeks to capitalize on growing foreign support to strengthen its position against local political rivals, the Government of Syria, and Turkey.
Ahmad’s remarks should be seen first and foremost as political rhetoric. They were published by an online news platform affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which represents the bleeding edge of revolutionary political ideology in the Self-Administration. The SDC itself later published a sanitized version of the remarks that left more room to find common cause across constituencies. While the statement may not represent a major departure from previous positions, its tone and assertiveness are undeniable. Collectively, Ahmad’s remarks capture the essence of the Self-Administration’s current mandate. Its leadership must balance competing local interests, yet an increasingly pressing question is how mounting pressure on Damascus and heightened international support to northeast Syria will advance the interest of the Self-Administration’s politically insular core.
Cementing the status quo in the northeast
At face value, Ahmad’s statement suggests the Self-Administration’s openness to building bridges with the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), which is influential on the ground in northwest Syria. More likely, it refers to other opposition-affiliated actors rooted in northeast Syria, such as Ahmad al-Jarba’s Syria’s Tomorrow Movement or the Kurdish National Council (KNC). The Self-Administration has expended significant energy in its attempts to reconcile with rival factions in northeast Syria. Progress to date has been limited, and occasional partisan flareups demonstrate that full-blown reconciliation inside the Self-Administration will not be achieved easily. However, renewed U.S. and international support will likely embolden the Self-Administration leadership to wield greater leverage over rival local actors.
The view from Damascus
To this end, Ahmad also called for greater UN aid to northeast Syria and demanded a stronger direct relationship between the UN and the Self-Administration, free of constraints imposed by Damascus. One flashpoint concerning aid access will be renewal of the cross-border resolution. The Self-Administration may view the inevitable renewal fight at the Security Council as a litmus test of the international community’s strategic direction in Syria (see: Syria Update 13 July 2020).
More provocative yet, Ahmad also called attention to the “political and diplomatic significance” of international delegations that have visited northeast Syria. In a seemingly contradictory formulation, Ahmad stated, “We do not speak about diplomatic recognition, but with the passage of time, work toward the democratic resolution to the Syrian crisis will lead to recognition of the Self-Administration. As for official recognition of the Self-Administration, it is an obligation on all humanity, and it is necessary for the world to carry out its duty and support this project.”
The view from Ankara
Little has come of the steps the SDC and SDF have taken to show flexibility in their stance toward Turkey and the Syrian opposition. These steps include a statement made by SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi, in November 2020, expressing the SDF’s willingness to negotiate with Turkey and distance itself from the PKK (see: Syria Update 25 November 2020), as well as the peace talks between the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political arm of the YPG, and the KNC, a member of the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition (see: Syria Update 28 September 2020).
Actions trump words. Cutting ties with the PKK is a remote possibility. The PKK is enormously influential within the upper ranks of the SDF and, consequently, inside the Self-Administration as a whole. Abandoning or restructuring the PKK would require a major reconfiguration of northeast Syria’s political and security apparatus. The failure of the so-called Menbij roadmap is evidence — on a small scale — of how delicate such a scheme would be upon implementation.
How aid implementers should respond
Whole Of Syria Review
1. Aleppo traders clash with customs agents
Local traders have spoken out against what they see as overzealous and punitive customs enforcement. The Aleppo Chamber of Commerce condemned the campaign, which it said “led to a complete paralysis in commercial movement during the holiday period in Aleppo markets.” On 5 January, more than 200 Aleppan traders convened a meeting at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce. The MPs who were invited to attend did not show up. In response, the chamber announced the creation of a committee to coordinate with the Ministry of Finance to arbitrate disputes between local traders and customs officials.
Meanwhile, Aleppo industrialists cast blame on traders. In September, the Chamber of Industry called for a “serious” crackdown on smuggling, including by reducing import subsidies (see: Syria Update 7 September 2020). The head of the Chamber of Industry, former MP Fares Shehabi, has been among the leading voices blaming Aleppo’s industrial woes on smuggled Turkish goods. Syrian markets are awash in Turkish products as a result of Syria’s economic collapse and the Syrian Government’s unwillingness to crack down on smuggling. In 2019, the prime minister’s office agreed to increase the customs agency’s authority in order to “dry up the sources of smuggling in Syria.” Reportedly, this has resulted in intensifying patrols around cities and on main commercial roads. However, the main focus of enforcement has shifted downstream, resulting in raids carried out inside cities and commercial hubs. Shopkeepers, final-mile marketers, and small and medium enterprises are bearing the brunt of enforcement tactics that leave unscathed the very “whales” officials have vowed to target — figures such as Ali Khader and Hussam Qaterji.
A final consideration is financial. The increase in customs raids may also suggest the Government of Syria’s hunger for additional resources. In 2020, customs revenues from fines counted between 18 billion and 35 billion SYP, providing ample incentive for crackdowns to be carried out when doing so does not alienate important constituencies or powerful backers.
2. Government forces thwart assassination attempt against minister of agriculture
Intentional or incidental?
First, Qatana could have been intentionally targeted by local armed groups, both because he is a high-profile Syrian minister and because he is the figurehead of unpopular decisions to navigate the flour crisis and drive up wheat production in southern Syria (see: Syria Update 21 December 2020). Limitations on the use of subsidized agricultural inputs have been controversial, and the drive to increase local wheat production risks forcing farmers to neglect more suitable, traditional crops. Prior to pushing through these controversial measures, Qatana had said that Syrians must rely on themselves to secure bread and should not wait for government assistance. Such inflammatory statements, coupled with the restrictive measures on farmers, might have promoted antagonism among locals, leading to an assassination attempt.
Second, the assassination attempt might simply have been a side effect of the chaotic security landscape in Dar’a governorate. Indeed, as of writing, 10 assassinations have been confirmed as having taken place in the first week of the new year. These targeted Government of Syria forces, including members of Military Security. Unrest and insecurity have been defining features of post-reconciliation Dar’a; the measures imposed following the reconciliation agreement, in 2018, have failed to pacify the region (see: Syria Update 19 October 2020; Syria Update 16 November 2020). Since October 2020, there have been approximately 75 assassinations in Dar’a, mainly targeting former opposition members. Although the number of assassinations dipped in December 2020, the trend so far this year suggests that security incidents of this sort are likely to continue in Dar’a governorate. Aid implementers must be mindful of the fluid security conditions in the governorate and the risk that political and even technocratic decisions could fuel instability and violence.
3. Anti-SDF protests over conscription in Deir-ez-Zor
Conscription policies raise the stakes
In December 2020, anti-SDF protests increased markedly as a result of the Self-Administration’s decision to forcefully conscript school teachers, health workers, and employees in local councils and other Self-Administration institutions. This decision reportedly came in response to IS activity in rural Deir-ez-Zor. These events also follow the Self-Administration’s release, in early October 2020, of approximately 630 detainees, some of whom had been accused of being linked to IS. It also follows stepped-up efforts to release families from Al-Hol camp. IS-linked or not, such individuals are unlikely to view the Self-Administration positively. The protests will likely continue taking place for the foreseeable future, especially if the SDF continues to meet the demonstrators with violence.
4. Massive hike in transport license fees augurs tariff jump
More fuel to the fire as tanks go empty
5. Surprise attack: Hurras al-Din strikes Russian base in Ar-Raqqa
Drawing a wildcard
6. Gulf reconciliation: Fearing Iran, GCC turns to Turkey
Still frosty toward Iran, warming up to Turkey
Open Source Annex
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.
Forcibly Disappeared in Syrian Detention Centers
What Does it Say?: The report builds on interviews with the families of Syrian detainees and quantitative data to present a holistic picture of detention procedures.
Reading Between the Lines: The report is a useful quantification of processes that are, by their nature, opaque and poorly understood. Among its most troubling findings is the role of monetary extortion. The report surmises that Syria’s prison complexes have generated some $900 million in revenues, paid by interested parties for information about detainees or for visitation privileges.
Source: Association of Detainees & the Missing in Sednaya Prison
Language: English Date: December 2020
Signs that the 2021 Budget Heralds Greater Austerity for Syrian Citizens
What Does it Say?: Although the 2021 Syria budget has increased to a record 4.5 billion SYP, its dollar value is at an all-time low of $2.9 billion, suggesting that hardship and austerity are in store for Syrians.
Reading Between the Lines: It is imperative for the international Syria response to evolve new approaches to Syria’s fiscal reality. Policymakers’ pursuit of leverage over Damascus will apply greater pressure to the civilian population.
Source: Enab Baladi Language: Arabic Date: 3 January 2021
10 Points from Syria’s 2020 Economic Events
What Does it Say?: The article lays out 10 key trends (all negative) in Syria’s economic proceedings during 2020.
Reading Between the Lines: Syria’s relative military calm has coincided with a significant increase in humanitarian needs based on other factors, including economic destitution and state collapse.
Source: Kassioun Language: Arabic Date: 2 January 2021
Humanitarian Disaster Looms Over Camps During Winter
What Does it Say?: IDP camps in Idleb are subject to intense flooding each winter, damaging tents, causing great difficulties, and impeding aid work.
Reading Between the Lines: Winterization is a routine challenge in Syria. As the number of IDPs continues to increase and the winter months get colder, these hardships worsen. Moreover, many camp residents must endure this struggle on an annual basis.
Source: Al-Monitor Language: English Date: 3 January 2021
Al-Hajar Al-Aswad: Allowing Residents and Homeowners Entry To Restore Destroyed Homes Is Out of the Question
What Does it Say?: The Government of Syria has allowed some residents of partially destroyed homes to return to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, while people whose homes have been destroyed are prohibited from returning.
Reading Between the Lines: The issue highlights the reality that for individuals — as for aid implementers — permissions are a powerful tool in the hands of the government.
Source: Damascus Voice Language: Arabic Date: 4 January 2021
What’s the Benefit for Russia From the Reopening of the International Highway (M-4)?
What Does it Say?: Russia has reopened sections of the M4 Highway after a month of closure due to military developments.
Reading Between the Lines: The economic situation in Syria is getting worse. The opening, even if partial, of the M4 may facilitate some trade.
Source: Eqtsad Language: Arabic Date: 4 January 2021
Redefining Victory in America’s War Against the Islamic State in Syria
What Does it Say?: The “enduring defeat” of IS — the linchpin of U.S. activities in Syria — is ill-defined and unrealistic.
Reading Between the Lines: Redefining this objective to fit ground realities will be a critical early test of the Biden administration. Policymakers must bear in mind that IS seized on an opportunity created by the near-collapse of the Syrian state — an outcome that is now the implicit intermediate goal of U.S. objectives in Syria.
Source: War on the Rock Language: English Date: 5 January 2021
The American Envoy Visits the UAE, To Confirm the Commitment To Pressure the Assad Regime
What Does it Say?: The U.S. special envoy to Syria met with the UAE and Jordan in order to secure assurances that the latter two countries remain committed to a maximum economic and political pressure campaign to push for a political solution in Syria.
Reading Between the Lines: The UAE has long been among the regional players most eager to restore commercial ties with Syria. Changes to its stance vis-à-vis Damascus may trigger a broader thawing of relations with the Syrian government.
Source: Alsouria Language: Arabic Date: 3 January 2021
Extension of Assad as President … Why and for What?
What Does it Say?: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is working toward extending his time in office by another seven years. He has already served 20 years as president.
Reading Between the Lines: Having achieved the greater part of a military victory to maintain his hold on power, al-Assad is unlikely to step down in a political process, regardless of pressure against him.
Source: An-Nahar Language: Arabic Date: 4 January 2021
Biden and the Syrian ‘Kurdish Down Payment’
What Does it Say?: The article argues that the U.S. is in a position to negotiate political autonomy for the Kurdish region in Syria with the Syrian state.
Reading Between the Lines: Such an about-face is unlikely. The U.S. has previously rejected Kurdish autonomy in northeast Syria. To change position now would, in effect, reduce active pressure on Damascus by removing a key point of leverage.
Source: Asharq Al Awsat Language: Arabic Date: 27 December 2020
An Exchange of Detainees Between the Asayish and the Syrian Government is Taking Place Today With Russian mediation in Qamishli
What Does it Say?: A prisoner exchange between the Asayish and the Government of Syria took place in Quamishli under Russian mediation.
Reading Between the Lines: Negotiations between Damascus and the Self-Administration have stalled, but functional cooperation on the tactical level continues.
Source: North Press Agency Language: Arabic Date: 6 January 2021
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