BEIRUT - In an exceptional year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, what have been the main economic, military, political and social developments shaping Syria? And what are the main challenges ahead for 2021?
A strangled economy
Syria has suffered from the COVID-19 economic slowdown on top of the scars of a decade of war; $117.7 billion losses in physical capital and a loss of $324.5 billion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
In 2020, the Syrian pound (SYP) plummeted. The official exchange rate to the dollar rose from SYP 704 to 1,256, while the parallel market now trades at around SYP 2,750. One of the factors of this devaluation was the collapse of the Lebanese banking system. Lebanon has historically been the gateway for the Syrian economy to circumvent sanctions. “The Syrian economy had adapted to operate, trade and depose money in Lebanon; once Lebanon’s economy imploded, it brought Syria’s down with it,” said Sam Heller, an independent analyst.
In addition, the Caesar Civilian Protection Act entered into force in June, acting as deterrence for third parties interested in doing business with the Syrian government. “There is an awareness around the region that this is a very heavy-duty kind of sanctions hammer hanging over anyone that decides to take a risk and become involved now in the Syrian economy,” Heller added.
However, “while the sanctions hurt the Assad regime, there is little evidence to suggest that sanctions alone would alter the regime’s behavior,” Abdulrahman al-Masri, an independent analyst, added. Sanctions-wise, al-Masri expects from the coming Biden administration “a continuation of the status quo.”
According to an Atlantic Council study, Syria’s 2021 budget is the smallest budget in a decade and the spending per citizen has decreased 70% since 2011.
The gutting of humanitarian aid
Around 6.5 million Syrians became food insecure and extreme poverty levels rose to 80% in 2020. Given the government’s troubles in securing imports, products like bread and cooking oil are scarce, and the government doubled the price of subsidized bread.
Around 11.7 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, but the delivery of this assistance has grown more complicated. “In 2020, we saw the gutting of the UNSC cross border resolution with the closure of three of four border crossings,” said Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). This means that all humanitarian aid had to pass through Damascus; as a consequence, Kayyali noted a “significant deterioration of the humanitarian situation in both Northeast and Northwest Syria [areas outside Damascus control].”
“If in July 2021 Russia vetoes the renewal of the cross-border mechanism and there is no alternative mechanism, we are going to see a disastrous humanitarian situation where the Syrian government holds humanitarian aid hostage,” Kayyali warned.
What peace process?
The UN-sponsored Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC) met twice in 2020 and will convene again in January 2021. There is little expectation that the SCC will draft a new constitution – as mandated by UNSC resolution 2254 – in time for the Presidential elections scheduled for spring 2021. “The Constitutional Committee is very important in the long term, but, as of now, its work can be completely irrelevant without being part of a genuine political settlement and transition process,” al-Masri said.
In November, the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces announced the formation of a High Election Commission, which was interpreted as a step towards participating in the coming presidential elections. An uproar followed, and the Coalition retracted. For Heller, it is unclear the reason for this announcement, given that it would be “unrealistic” to expect Damascus to allow the opposition to participate in the elections. “I don’t think there is any indication that the key international stakeholders [backing opposition groups] are prepared for that kind of bargain [participating in the elections],” he said.
Northeast Syria’s conundrum
In 2020, Turkey has maintained its foothold in the areas between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, land it occupied in 2019 after US President Donald Trump greenlighted the Turkish “Operation Peace Spring.” Northeast Syria (NES) is controlled mainly by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multiethnic alliance led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group in Turkey. SDF commander Mazloum Abdi announced recently that the process of withdrawal of non-Syrian PKK members in NES had already started, a sign of de-escalation with Ankara.
NES is precariously positioned as the US, Russia and Turkey, as well as the SDF and Syrian army forces all have a presence there and patrol within close proximity to one another.
Although Syria is not high on Biden’s foreign policy agenda, according to Heller, he estimated that “the Biden administration will maintain a more stable presence in Syria’s northeast.”
“I expect the Biden administration to put some diplomatic effort into facilitating talks between Ankara and the Syrian Kurdish leadership in the northeast as well as pushing for more intra-Kurdish conciliation,” al-Masri said. Under the next US administration, al-Masri expected an increase of US troops to “provide stabilization operations with regards to preventing the resurgence of the Islamic State group [ISIS].”
While ISIS “insurgent capabilities remain limited,” according to a Crisis Group report, their members are still able to extort money from locals in the eastern desert.
In 2020, the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) allowed hundreds of Syrian women and children from al-Hol camp to return to their hometowns. However, concerning the foreign women - many of whom traveled to Syria to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State - there was an “ad hoc policy of repatriating only sympathetic characters,” but not a policy of systematic repatriation by their home countries, Kayyali pointed out. This policy can increase “resentment among the foreign women and children for being effectively trapped in these camps,” she warned.
The protracted puzzle in Idlib
Idlib hosts around four million civilians, plus the armed men deemed ‘irreconcilables’ under the ‘reconciliation agreements’ made between the Syrian government and armed groups in formerly opposition-controlled areas. It is controlled by the hardline Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
In an interview with Crisis Group this year, the leader of HTS, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, tried to present the group as “independent of al-Qaeda’s chain of command, with a strictly Syrian, not a transnational, Islamist agenda.” But the consideration of HTS as a political actor remains far-fetched.
In the first trimester of 2020, HRW documented attacks by Syrian and Russian forces in Idlib on civilian infrastructure that could amount to war crimes.
Al-Masri expects to see in 2021 the same pattern of military maneuvers employed by Damascus and Moscow during this year: “to launch a limited offensive, gain a small portion of territory, then broker de-escalation with Turkey–and re-do the same again later.” But given Ankara’s “significant investment in Syria’s northwest,” there is a “threshold for Turkey that the regime and Moscow may not be able to cross.”
The puzzle seems unsolvable. Damascus “depends on Russia to enable new territorial gains, but Russia is concerned with the military logic by that and by how to manage Turkey,” Heller explained. “At some point, Russia will enable Damascus to seize the M4 [Latakia-Aleppo] highway in Idlib and the areas south of it, but I am not sure when and what kind of political horse-trading might be required for it,” he added.
Who will get the COVID-19 vaccine?
According to official statistics, Syria has registered 11, 033 cases and 678 deaths by COVID-19 so far (in addition to 19,975 cases in the opposition-held area in northwest and 6,955 cases in the SDF-controlled areas in northeast). But given the lack of transparency of the state's institutions, the virus’s real spread is understood to be higher.
COVID-19 “has decimated healthcare infrastructure, and it is out of control,” according to Kayyali. “This, coupled with the economic crisis and the scars of the conflict, make it very unlikely that we will see a recovery from COVID-19 in 2021.” HRW has denounced that medical treatment is only available “to those who can afford it.”
Kayyali’s main concern is that the distribution of the vaccine replicates what happens with humanitarian aid. “The Syrian government has limited the distribution [of humanitarian aid] to people who have proven loyal or areas considered strongholds for the Syrian government,” whereas communities that expressed dissent had difficulties accessing that aid. If the government managed the vaccine, Kayyali alerted that “the people with the money, loyalty and connections” will be the ones receiving it. “We need an independent humanitarian agency that can monitor and ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine when it arrives,” Kayyali explained.
The dangerous rise of the return narrative
The narrative that frames Syria as safe for return picked up in 2020. Denmark, deeming Damascus safe, started reassessing the status of refugees from that area. In Damascus, Russia held the ‘refugee return conference,’ boycotted by most refugee-hosting states, except for Lebanon - a country that hosts 1.5 million refugees.
In comparison to previous years, direct military operations have declined and frontlines have stabilized. But according to Kayyali, this does not equate to safety for many of the 5.6 million refugees and 6.4 million internally displaced. Many fled not only out of fear of airstrikes, but also because “they were afraid of being arbitrarily detained, tortured or extrajudicially prosecuted; all of these factors remain exactly the same in Syria today,” she added.
In the first half of 2020, 1,006 civilians were killed as a result of military operations, 947 were arbitrarily arrested and 71 died under torture, according to SNHR figures. “Unless some radical reforms are put in place, it is very premature to talk about return even in 2021,” Kayyali said.
Impunity begins to crack
For years Russia and China’s vetoes blocked the intervention of the International Criminal Court (2014) or the creation of an ad hoc tribunal (2019). But in 2020, the impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations in Syria started to crack. More and more European countries are sitting suspects of human rights violations in court under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
The Koblenz trial - the first criminal trial on state torture in Syria - “brought hope to many Syrians that are looking for justice; although it remains only a step,” Kayyali said. In another milestone, a complaint in a German tribunal against nine Syrian officers for sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in detention facilities became the first case where SGBV was framed as a crime against humanity and not as a tool of torture.
The Netherlands also initiated the procedure to hold the Syrian government accountable before the International Court of Justice for violation of the UN Convention Against Torture. “Given Syria’s history of non-negotiations and its non-response to the diplomatic overcharges by the Netherlands, we are likely to see by the end of 2021 the International Court of Justice look into this question,” Kayyali said.
On the target of these judicial efforts are not only Syrian government officials but also members of opposition armed groups like Jaish al-Islam, whose ex-spokesperson Islam Alloush faces war crime charges in France. The trial is expected to start in 2021.