Over the past two years, Syria has largely dropped out of the mainstream news cycle. We notice this at Jadaliyya in the falloff of submissions and entries in our monthly media roundup covering developments in the country. The change is the result of several factors, chief among them the apparently diminishing chances that the regime would collapse or be defeated after December 2016, when Russian intervention significantly aided the regime in its efforts to take control of all of metropolitan Aleppo. Minor battles continued to be waged after that date, not least in efforts by both US forces and the Syrian Defense Forces to defeat ISIS in Raqqa. Yet, at this point the external allies of various opposition-oriented armed groups, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, started withdrawing from the conflict, opting instead to engage in an oddly recurring media war about the Syrian conflict and other sub-regional matters in the Arab Gulf. At the same time, coalitions that had been the source of considerable aid to armed opposition groups seem to have fallen by the wayside.
The role of Turkey, by contrast, has expanded, largely due to greater “coordination” with Russia and Iran, enabled by the Astana negotiations and by direct military operations in North Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqa, and Hassakeh (e.g., “Euphrates Shield,” “Olive Branch,” and “Peace Spring”). By these and other means, Turkey has managed to impose its direct stewardship over so-called “Turkish-backed opposition” areas. In recent direct clashes with the regime army in Idlib, Turkish military operations seem to have reached a peak.
With Turkey and the regime both gaining greater control over their respective areas, security and think-tank sectors in the United States became less preoccupied than they had been with the emergence of “jihadist” groups inside an embattled Syria. After the capture of Raqqa, these security concerns dissipated further, coinciding with the declining coverage of Syria in mainstream media venues both in the United States and more generally. Alongside the decrease in overt hostilities comes the failure by de facto authorities to adequately address the deteriorating socioeconomic situation. Syrians continue to suffer from severe poverty and conditions of profound insecurity. Recently, COVID-19 has added a new layer of burden on people and institutions.
As the country continues to smolder amid declining news coverage, the co-editors of our Syria Page (now with two new members) are inviting renewed critical engagement with current conditions in Syria. Prompted by recent developments, we aim to address specific aspects of Syria’s current predicament, hoping to stimulate further conversation and analysis on our page.
The following is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list that “takes stock” of everything that has happened recently in Syria. Nor is it meant to foreclose other areas of inquiry. The goal, rather, is to initiate an ongoing conversation, an effort to highlight some of the themes that we think cannot be ignored. Some of the rubrics end with questions, others have questions embedded throughout. Some are more declarative, others more open-ended. They reflect the diversity of views and styles of reasoning to be found at Jadaliyya. All are offered as provocations for evidence-based research and analysis. We ask interested authors to share their thoughts and submissions at syria@Jadaliyya.com.
Russia and Syria
The recent discussions about Russian companies securing lucrative contracts or the Russians’ long-term lease of the port of Tartus miss a broader point. It may be true that Russia is seeking an economic return on its investments, but the overarching goals in Syria seem to be primarily geopolitical, in line with its interest in control, stability, and having a major strategic foothold from which to project influence in the region. The Russian regime is relatively flexible as to how to achieve these goals, exercising its hegemonic power through an approach combining brutal force with diplomacy. For example, and uniquely as compared to any other player in the Syrian conflict, since their direct intervention the Russians have opened up talks with nearly every actor/force in the country willing to talk to them. They have also maintained relations with all the neighboring countries.
The Russian regime’s interests in stability and its goal of finding a Russian-sanctioned cessation to military conflict have frequently been met with recalcitrance on the part of the Syrian regime, which resists compromising to end the conflict. The Russian view is that such compromises are necessary if Syria is to be set on a course of rebuilding that makes for stability, growth, and ultimately dividends.
The Russia mark on the Syrian conflict at the macro level is clear in having decisively turned the tide against the various military challenges to the regime, but it is also gradually reshaping a variety of security, political, and economic structures in the country. This process is neither uniform nor linear, of course, and nor will it necessarily be successful. Here we mention a few of the complicating trends and factors.
The Russian position has two key features: defense and state. It is no secret that the lack of transparency in Russian internal politics, as in other places, make details difficult to discern and evidence difficult to corroborate. Suffice it to say that in addressing the question of Russian intentions and influence, it is necessary to keep in mind the push and pull between conservative internal politics and security and external adventurism.
Russia’s attempt to reshape the Syrian state, particularly at the level of the security apparatus, has meant contending with new actors and forces that prefer continuing to reap opportunity and wealth from the war over facing the uncertainty of peace and accommodation. The heavy physical and material losses suffered by the Syrian regime throughout the conflict have increased the necessity for complementary security. A new class of Syrian and Russian warlords and business tycoons can be counted on, in the context of a weakened regime, to strive to protect its interests.
Russia also has to contend with the regime’s limited diplomatic toolbox and institutional constraints, both of which have been further compromised by the regime’s longstanding refusal to deal peacefully with dissenters. This is the flip side of the endemic paranoia that reigns at the very top, despite the regime’s near absolute grip on coercive power in the territory it controls. This paranoia has been intrinsic to regime operations since the late 1960s, extending through the 1970s and the early 1980s when it faced the most serious threat to its rule, until, of course, the uprising of 2011.
The complications of Russia’s de facto alliance with Iran and Hizballah in the war against the opposition raise another challenge, particularly in combination with the need to maintain strong relations with Turkey and Israel. Iran and Hizballah both have greater strategic stakes in Syria than Russia, making them risk averse about pressuring the regime, as they ultimately pay the immediate price for regime change or even any significant disturbance. Israel’s primary security concern currently is the presence of Iranian and Hizballah forces close to its borders. Russia’s ability to achieve its goals in the country are increased by the complexity of the trade-offs required.
The key challenge to Russian success is the US presence in Syria, as evidenced by the US willingness to enter into compromises with Turkey and the establishment of political platforms like “Sochi” meant to limit direct US influence on the “the final deal” in Syria.
These complexities and challenges facing Russia in Syria are just a few possible themes for research and analysis in this area. Other issues include the micro-changes occurring at the social level as Russia enlarges its security, political, and even cultural footprint; the role of the other regional and international players that are looming in the background; how both Russia and the United States have to contend with the more aggressive foreign policies we are seeing from rising regional powers such as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia; and of course the traditional belligerence of Israel.
Elite Conflict: The Case of Rami Makhluf
On 30 April 2020, Bashar al-Asad’s cousin Rami Makhluf posted the first of what are now several Facebook videos revealing a major rift in the inner circle of Syria’s ruling family. Something seems to have motivated the Syrian president to exert significant pressure on his billionaire cousin, although it is unclear what and speculations abound. Some say the president is attempting to enhance his own image and re-consolidate power by sidelining one of the regime’s most notoriously corrupt members. Others suggest a powerplay might be underway between the Makhluf family and the first lady’s, in which her aim is to take over the lucrative telecommunications business which has enriched Makhluf. Others highlight the role of Russia in reshaping the regime’s power structure, while even here the interests and motivations are not clear. The accusations in the third video against a class of nouveau riche war profiteers suggest that competition between the regime and a new elite might also be relevant. Still others cite broader economic factors as the reason for the shift, as the Syrian regime needs Makhluf’s considerable fortune to jumpstart an economy left in shambles by the war.
These explanations and suggestions are not mutually exclusive, of course, and whatever turns out to be the case, the politics and political economy of this surprising development (which by 19 May included the “precautionary seizure” of Makhluf’s assets) demand further analysis. They invite questions about why Rami Makhluf in particular, as opposed to other “spoilers”? And what specifically does the Makhluf case signal to the various Syrian patrons and their clients about their own positions and vulnerabilities?
Makhluf’s videos are titled with Quranic verses, which has generated a meme storm parodying his newfound piety and self-portrayal as a victim. His lament over the “inhumanity” of his treatment by the security forces he helped bankroll—as they pressure him and arrest his employees—is one of many ironies in the current situation. Whether it’s best approached as comedic in form or in an effort to understand what Makhluf is signaling (does the pile of logs in the background of the video underscore the incendiary nature of his posts?), the rift invites interpretation of the regime’s evolving politics of representation. It also raises questions about who Makhluf’s primary addressees are. And what his supporters and his detractors (as well as the supporters and opponents of his cousin President Asad) understand from these videos.
Also worthy of note are the international dimensions of Makhluf’s marginalization, as the competition between Iran and Russia over which country has the upper hand may be playing out in this case. Some speculate that factions inside the Russian power structure are backing Makhluf against Asad—or at least hedging their bets, while few suspect the Russians of being as wedded to Bashar as their Iranian counterparts are. Moreover, Rami, his family members, and many of his associates are under EU or US sanctions for their roles in the Syrian conflict. In this light, how likely is it that the current rift was prompted by the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act? The regional and global aspects of the family rift, what it means in terms of geostrategic interests, what it might portend for domestic (in)stability, what it tells us about divvying up the spoils of war and/or creating new forms of imperial power—these are some of the themes Makhluf’s posts also bring to the fore.
We invite articles exploring the regime’s conflict with Makhluf amid the broader political, economic, semiotic, and regional-global dimensions that it illuminates. Authors are welcome to tackle one or more of the multiple themes adumbrated above.
The Situation in Idlib: Diverging Trajectories
Idlib Governorate and its environs have been the center of attention since the beginning of the Syrian uprising and the subsequent conflict. The creative banners and inventive caricatures of Kafranbel and the walls of Saraqeb communicated messages of resistance, hope, and despair through humor and art. Most recently, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis, art in solidarity with the United States’ uprisings against systemic racism and police brutality has also emerged from this region—with the slogan “I can’t breathe” speaking to issues of authoritarian repression and citizen vulnerability worldwide. Hundreds of workshops, local and international NGOs, training centers for “citizen journalists,” and social networks proliferated in the area before the sealing of the border in mid-2015 after the rise of ISIS. Millions of Syrians have passed through Idlib, fleeing the indiscriminate bombardment by the Syrian regime and (after 2015) Russia, either finding refuge in Turkey or continuing on their perilous journey through the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of asylum in Europe.
It is well known to Syrians and students of Syrian politics that the region’s proximity to the Turkish border facilitated the movement of defected soldiers and officers who formed the Free Officers Movement (on 9 June 2011) and later the Free Syrian Army (on 29 July 2011). Since 2015 when the province came under opposition control, Idlib has been governed by a number of rival factions, many of which were subsequently dissolved, but two which continue to be salient, the al-Qa‘ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS; formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) and Ahrar al-Sham. The region has gone through radical socio-economic changes that will have an enduring impact. Ethnic and sectarian-based violence, forced migration, and demographic changes continue to reshape the region’s social contours, as in the case of the Four-Cities Agreement of April 2017, which led to an exchange of residents (self-identifying as Sunni) between Madaya and al-Zabadani in the Damascus countryside and inhabitants (self-identifying as Shi`a) Kafraya and Fuaa in the Idlib countryside.
Forcible demographic change also took place in the Kurdish region of Afrin in the northern Aleppo countryside (bordering al-Dana Nahiyah of the Harem District of Idlib in the south), which was seized by Turkish forces and allied Syrian opposition forces (Free Syrian Army/FSA) on 18 March 2018. Since then, Afrin has become the main destination of opposition forces forcibly displaced from Eastern Ghouta, who along with other Syrian families (self-identifying as Arab and Turkmen) had been settled in homes vacated by Kurdish civilians.
Since May 2017 Idlib has also been subject to a “de-escalation” agreement between Turkey, Russia, and Iran. This agreement has been violated by various sides, prompting regime air strikes and more citizen displacement. The most recent offensive, “Dawn of Idlib 2,” began on 19 December 2019, displacing about a million civilians to the Turkish border before a new agreement (brokered between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin) initiated a new ceasefire beginning on 6 March 2020. The regime and its allies controlled two key cities (Khan Sheikhoun and Ma’arrat al-Nu’man) in Idlib and shrunk the space for HTS and other armed groups substantially. The global spread of COVID-19 has, ironically, temporarily alleviated the pressure of aerial assaults on ordinary people who were fleeing en masse.
Given the significant role Idlib played during the uprising—with areas of the province being among the “first movers”—as well as its role in the war and the uncertainty around the province’s future, we invite articles that will engage analytically and critically with one or more of the following questions:
On the global pandemic: What is the impact of COVID-19 on local populations and IDPs in the region of Idlib? How are the inhabitants of Idlib grappling with the prospects of COVID-19 hitting their areas? What is the current status of infrastructure and facilities in the Idlib Governorate? How can local organizations cope with cases of health emergencies in this period? What kinds of discourses—religious, scientific, comedic, conspiracy-oriented—are emerging in this context?
On the ongoing conflict: What is the likelihood that the current ceasefire agreement will hold? What is the role of Turkey in Idlib and how might this change over time? Historically, why was Idlib the epicenter of “Jihadist” and “Islamist” armed groups in 2011–13 and why did early efforts to form a more secular Free Syrian Army fail?
On international aid: What is the role of local and international NGOs in Idlib? What are/were their main contributions and shortcomings? What can we learn from aid policies and on-the-ground practices over the last nine years?
On the political economy of war: What is the significance of Idlib for the political economy of war (e.g., the activities of smugglers, human traffickers, and warlords; the importance of custom taxes and tariffs; the significance of Bab al-Hawa and other border crossings; the role of property confiscation)? In what ways have local economies become more integrated into the Turkish economy, Turkish-backed opposition-held areas, or the Syrian regime-held areas?
Syrian Cultural Production
The proliferation and international acclaim of Syrian documentary films, the evolving political economy and social content of Syrian Ramadan television series, the irreverence and ongoing-ness of comedy in times of tumult, the various kinds of solidarity that music enables, the forms of artistic experimentation (in literature, contemporary art, and film, for example) happening in exile—these are some of the themes that have come to the fore in the study of Syrian popular culture. Questions of representation and addressability—of who gets to stand in for Syria, of how politics and aesthetics intersect, of the logics of current cultural production can help us think more deeply about abiding issues of subjectivity, affect, and political attachment.
Controversies about portraying human suffering, about the gendered dynamics of war, about the kinds of genre-stretching that happen in situations of displacement and authoritarian reconsolidation all deserve renewed attention. So too do explorations of world-making when crisis has become part of ordinary life and the language of domination and resistance no longer seems adequate to the moment—to capturing the affective and structural dynamics of capital or the seductions of authoritarianism, or in the most recent present, life under conditions of a global but unevenly experienced pandemic.
Other questions that are indexed by the concept of “culture” but not immediately about popular artistic expression include the following: How has the conflict restructured social norms, embodied dispositions, and the practices of ethical reasoning? How have various forms of identity politics—such as those around sect or region or Syrianness—been reframed in the context of ongoing regional and great power intervention?
Years of domestic conflict, displacement, and poverty have made precarity and insecurity into daily realities for Syrians. The overlapping of violence, household instability, and the consequences of COVID-19 continue to place psychological and material strains on people’s daily lives. Syrians’ legal status at home and in neighboring countries remains unsettled, leaving them constantly subject to campaigns of expulsion, harassment, and mistreatment as they lack the rights needed to ensure protection. Syrians’ precarity is produced through their interactions with a range of actors, from the Syrian regime or armed groups to international humanitarian interventions, with their own harmful effects.
Yet, Syrians are not simply passive in the production of their precarity. They have found ways to organize against their conditions both inside and outside the country. The demand for security and safety coincides with an ever-changing regulatory environment aimed at limiting the rights and resources available for refugees and asylum seekers. These constant changes mean that Syrians lack the information and technology necessary to address their precarity, but they also demand forms of organization capable of pressing individual and collective demands. Moreover, Syrian cultural production engages with precarity in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, demonstrating how Syrians respond to and try to make sense of their insecure conditions. Understanding Syrians’ precarity today requires understanding how overlapping authorities and forms of power bear on their lives and how they, in turn, make sense of, resist, and try to alleviate precarity. Some questions that might be addressed in this context include:
How have Syrians experienced these new conditions of precarity? What expressions of resilience have come to the fore? What about new forms of alienation inside and outside the country? What are their implications for politics?
To what extent have Syrians engaged in the conflict economy, becoming more dependent on subsidies, contraband, informal markets, etc.?
How have women in particular adapted to displacement, refugee conditions, wartime circumstances within Syria, and other ongoing conditions of insecurity? How are gender roles being reconfigured under conditions of devastation and day-to-day hardship?
Recent military shifts in the Syrian conflict in favor of the regime have accelerated debate about post-conflict reconstruction. In the absence of an internationally mandated peace process, international interveners and Western states have refused to provide resources for Syria’s much needed recovery. Russia and China have made modest proposals about possibly contributing to future reconstruction processes. Nor has the regime been forthcoming with a structural vision for reconstruction, aside from a series of new laws and policies aimed at attracting foreign capital into the country. Meanwhile, the long-term reconstruction needs of the Syrian population go unaddressed even in planning for the future, thereby further exacerbating precarity, insecurity, and instability.
The conflict is not over yet and key actors continue pursuing security/military strategies to gain power and influence. UN attempts, such as the Geneva talks and the Constitutional Committee, failed to trigger a path to end the war. Any inclusive reconstitution process is going to be challenged by the conflicting priorities of both internal and external actors, oppressive conflict-centered de facto political powers, and intensified socio-economic grievances.
International actors have produced voluminous reports about what needs to be done in Syria in the way of reconstruction, how to do it, and how to avoid empowering the Syrian regime in contributing to the reconstruction process. Agencies such as the World Bank and various organs of the United Nations, deploying new methods of knowledge production such as aerial technology and social media, are the sites where knowledge is produced about Syria’s reconstruction needs. Some international agencies such as the UNDP are active inside Syria, but they are limited in terms of the generational and structural work they can enact. In framing Syria’s problems and solutions, moreover, they tend to use a conceptual apparatus associated with the language of international intervention, situating Syria in broader global, some would say neocolonial trends currently in vogue in post-conflict reconstruction.
While the international community contemplates how to intervene in Syria’s reconstruction independently of a peace process, the Syrian regime has passed a series of laws in the name of reconstruction, including measures to reorganize property ownership, attract private capital, and forge public-private partnerships. There is a plan for reconstruction, in other words, but critics argue that it is hobbled by a top-down structure, faces formidable management challenges, and depends on a generous budget that lacks actual funding. The majority of efforts to date have focused on areas that have remained under government control.
The current phase of the conflict suggests that internal and external battles will be fought over post-conflict reconstruction resources, especially as the Syrian regime continues its exclusionary practices into the post-conflict period by diverting resources away from some areas, effectively allocating reconstruction contracts to the war’s victors. In these conditions, reconstruction will be an uneven process that serves to enhance state power rather than opening a path toward reconciliation. Some questions relevant to this situation include the following:
What are the internal debates about reconstruction that are taking place inside Syria now?
How have international interveners positioned themselves as key knowledge producers about Syrian reconstruction? And what kind of knowledge gets produced in that context?
How is Syrian reconstruction being discussed inside the MENA region?
How do reconstruction options cohere with the regime’s pursuits of a rapprochement with regional states?
How can reconstruction potentially open up opportunities for alternative solidarities, ones that extend beyond the current conflict economy?
If the regime remains in power, what types of reconstruction and/or recovery can be expected?
The themes discussed above are just some of the possible areas of exploration regarding Syria today. As we look to increase Syria related coverage on our pages in the coming weeks and months, we would also like to draw your attention to excellent work being done by our network of collaborators. The Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR), a partner institution, has just released a major socioeconomic report titled “Justice to Transcend Conflict in Syria.” The report is based on unique field-based research conducted during the past several years and has been long-awaited by both observers and international institutions that rely on SCPR to deliver sound data and analysis on Syria. A summary of this multi-faceted and near-comprehensive report will be available on Jadaliyya shortly and will thereafter be published by our sister organization Tadween Publishing. You may watch the launch of the report, in both its Arabic and English versions, here and here.
In collaboration with our sister website, Salon Syria, we launched a bilingual report, “Syria in a Week,” to counteract declining attention by addressing significant developments in the country. The report was published weekly from January 2018 until March 2020, when it ceased publication.
We are all looking forward to your continued support and engagement through reading, submission of essays, or suggestions for areas of needed coverage. Email us here for submissions: syria@Jadaliyya.com
[This article was originally published by Jadaliyya on 4 June, 2020.]