Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Thirteen Years of the Syrian Crisis: A Complete Stalemate

Thirteenth year of the Syrian crisis and the situation remains profoundly challenging. Despite international and regional efforts, progress towards resolving the crisis appears minimal.

Thirteen Years Syrian Crisis
Syrians attend a gathering to mark 13 years of the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria on March 15, 2024. AAREF WATAD / AFP

Hussein Ali al-Zoubi

Right now, Syria faces a complex and tragic situation as it enters the thirteenth year of the Syrian crisis.

During a recent statement from Damascus, Geir Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, expressed concerns about the country’s trajectory. Pedersen highlighted the apparent deterioration in Syria’s political, security and economic situation.

Pedersen’s perspective on the political situation in Syria revolves around the disruption of meetings of the Constitutional Committee, which is the only initiative Pedersen conducted several sessions in. These sessions have failed to yield tangible steps towards drafting a new constitution for Syria.

The sessions have become increasingly contentious. Russia, as the primary supporter of the Syrian regime, has declined to host the sessions in Geneva. Russia perceives Switzerland as non-neutral due to its stance on the conflict in Ukraine. Consequently, Bashar al-Assad has declined Pedersen’s invitation to resume the Constitutional Committee’s meetings in Geneva.

Another aspect of concern is UN Resolution No. 2254. Several of its key provisions, particularly the establishment of an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers, remain unimplemented.

Despite efforts by Arab nations to adopt a step-by-step approach to solving the crisis in Syria, as proposed during the Amman meeting, progress has been minimal. Notably, no advancements have been made in crucial areas, such as halting drug trafficking towards Jordan or facilitating the return of Syrian refugees.

Journalist Muhammad al-Owaid highlights two relevant aspects regarding the re-establishment of stability within Syria and the step-by-step approach.

Firstly, he notes the formation of a collaborative communication unit aimed at combating cross-border drug trafficking among Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Established in mid-February 2024, this unit, later joined by Egypt, convened twice. Despite these efforts, drug smuggling activities persist unabated and with increased intensity. This is evidenced by data from Jordanian Customs, revealing numerous attempts to smuggle significant quantities of drugs, notably Captagon.

The second aspect highlighted by al-Owaid pertains to the Syrian regime’s decision to consolidate its security services. In his discussion with Fanack, al-Owaid suggests that this decision may align with the step-by-step approach pursued by the Arab League during the Amman consultative meeting.

It is worth noting that the consolidation of security services is primarily driven by popular demand, as Syria currently operates dozens of separate security apparatuses, each operating in isolation. This fragmented structure often leads to bureaucratic hurdles for Syrian citizens, who may find themselves navigating multiple agencies for a single issue or even facing investigations from different security services regarding the same matter.

Reports indicate that the Syrian regime has initiated the merger of two key intelligence divisions, namely the Military Intelligence Division and the Air Force Intelligence Division, into a unified entity named the Army and Armed Forces Intelligence.

Additionally, there are plans to consolidate criminal security, law enforcement forces, and the Political Security Division into a single agency to be known as Syrian General Security.

These restructuring efforts are purportedly part of a broader Russian plan aimed at reorganising the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Interior. Al-Owaid views these developments as a diversionary tactic, suggesting that the fundamental issue lies not merely in structural changes but rather in the roles these agencies assume and their pervasive influence within society, as they have a daunting history of committing atrocities.

However, both undertakings appear to have failed to garner approval from the US administration. Robert Wood, Alternate Representative of the United States of America for Special Political Affairs in the United Nations, reaffirmed that the “US sanctions will remain in place until, at a minimum, there is concrete, measurable progress toward a political solution.” Addressing the Security Council, Wood emphasised that the al-Assad regime is a “brutal regime that only knows the language of violence to address political dissent.”

Wood also highlighted the peaceful protests in the southern al-Suwayda governorate, where demonstrators called for political transition and the implementation of Resolution 2254. He underscored his country’s commitment to supporting United Nations agencies and humanitarian organisations as they provide protection and services to Syrians in need.

In February 2024, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed that 16.7 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, up from 15.3 million in 2023.

Economic Collapse

Thirteen Years Syrian Crisis
A photo that was taken of an old Syrian woman on April 17, 2021, while walking along one of the markets in Idlib. Muhammed Said / Anadolu agency via AFP.

Syria is currently grappling with an economic collapse, as evidenced by various indicators, most notably the depreciation of the Syrian pound.

Officially, the dollar exchange rate has soared to approximately 11,500 Syrian pounds, while on the black market, it hovers around 14,000 liras. This alarming inflation of the Syrian pound has resulted in diminished purchasing power and a significant disruption of the economy. It is crucial to highlight that the minimum wage is a mere 280,000 liras, equivalent to approximately 17 to 19 US dollars. This meagre wage covers only a fraction of living expenses.

Additional indicators of Syria’s economic downturn include the approval of the general budget by the Syrian Parliament for 2024. This budget allocates a total of 35.5 trillion liras, roughly equivalent to 3.1 billion US dollars, a 40 per cent decrease from the 2023 budget, which amounted to $5.52 billion.

The dire economic conditions in Syria have wide-ranging negative effects on various aspects of life. Reports from the United Nations indicate that approximately 90 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Furthermore, nearly 31 per cent of the country’s estimated population of 24 million are internally displaced and endure challenges such as lack or loss of documents, land, property and housing.

In light of these circumstances, sources within Parliament, as reported by Fanack, have disclosed demands to auction off properties confiscated by the regime from opposition members or offer these properties for private investment. This proposal raises concerns as it could result in the transfer of numerous private properties to other parties without the consent or knowledge of the owners.

The economic challenges have also significantly eroded the middle class, traditionally a cornerstone of Syrian society. Presently, Syrian society finds itself largely subject to the dynamics of a war economy, rampant corruption and the breakdown of social values.

Concurrently, there has been an alarming surge in drug abuse among young people, reaching unprecedented levels. One perilous consequence of this trend is the proliferation of extortion tactics aimed at coercing young individuals into drug trafficking, exploiting them in smuggling activities. Additionally, this surge in drug abuse has contributed to a rise in kidnappings for ransom.

The prevailing economic conditions in regime-controlled areas do not markedly differ from those in areas in northwestern Syria governed by Turkish-backed factions and others aligned with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Similarly, residents in northeastern Syria, under the administration of the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), face comparable economic challenges.

Get out, Bashar. Get out, Julani

Thirteen Years Syrian Crisis
A photo taken on March 8, 2024 for a Syrian as he sits by the tomb of his brother who was reportedly killed in torture while in captivity by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), in the village of Harbanush in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP

Demonstrators in areas of Idlib controlled by HTS, led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, have recently been chanting various phrases, such as “Get out, Bashar. Get out, Julani. Syria is free. Get out, Julani.” These demonstrations represent a notable attempt to challenge the strong grip that al-Julani holds over Idlib.

Deutsche Welle reported a statement from Muhammad Abdel Razzaq, one of the organisers of the demonstrations, expressing, “Those who believed that the Syrian revolution had ended and that the regime had fully regained control of the nation were mistaken. We are advocates of freedom and justice. We initially rose against al-Assad and now stand against the authority of HTS and its leader, al-Julani.”

Regarding areas under the control of Turkish-backed factions, Muhammad Yassin, an organiser of the demonstration in the city of Azaz, remarked, “The majority of participants are under the age of twenty. Everyone remains committed to the core principles of the revolution, which include overthrowing the Syrian regime, establishing a democratic state, uncovering the fate of detainees and facilitating the return of those who were displaced to their cities and villages.”

The bold and fanciful approach to challenge both al-Assad and al-Julani appears to lose its optimistic context, particularly in light of the escalating clashes between regime forces and HTS. This indicates the likelihood of a tense summer in northwestern Syria, especially considering the region’s susceptibility to potential retaliatory actions from Russia. This potential for heightened tensions is further compounded by the recent attack in Moscow by the Islamic State, the full details of which were not yet clear at the time of writing this article.

Similar tensions may also arise in northeastern Syria, which is controlled by the SDF. However, this time, the source of tension stems from the Turkish side. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently declared that Turkey will secure its entire border with Iraq and conclude remaining operations in Syria by the summer.

This statement undoubtedly alludes to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), based in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, as well as the SDF, which Ankara sees as the PKK’s Syrian branch.

It appears that both the Iraqi government in Baghdad and Iran have endorsed the proposals put forth by Turkey. This alignment is evident in an announcement from Baghdad, which prohibits the presence of the PKK and mandates the arrest of individuals displaying images of the party’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

Against this backdrop, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and security officials engaged in discussions with Iraqi authorities and the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which serve as Iran’s operational arm in Iraq.

While progress has been made towards resolving the PKK issue in Iraq, the situation presents greater complexity for Ankara in Syria because the SDF is considered an ally of the United States.

However, this complexity could take a different turn if Washington opts to prioritise its relationship with Turkey over its alliance with the SDF, potentially in pursuit of a stance closer to NATO and more distant from Russia. Should such a scenario unfold, the most plausible outcome would likely see the SDF gravitating towards an alliance with the Syrian regime and, consequently, with Russia.

In summary, the current situation across Syria appears complex and devoid of viable solutions. The Syrian political, economic and societal landscapes exhibit signs of stagnation, offering little promise of progress in the foreseeable future.

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