Early June saw Syria erupt into nationwide demonstrations against the president, Bashar al-Assad. A beleaguered population, exhausted by years of civil conflict, were at the end of their tether. Spiralling oil and food prices, deteriorating economic conditions and the collapse of the Syrian pound were hitting them hard. Until the civil war began in 2011, about 50 Syrian pounds bought one US dollar. In early June 2020, it took 2500, and the situation was deteriorating fast.
Popular demonstrations took place even in As-Suwayda, the Druze-majority province that had remained loyal to Assad throughout the war – and the call from all sides was for Assad to resign. Videos broadcast on social media showed people marching through a market in Suwayda chanting anti-government slogans like “Leave now Bashar”, and “The people want the fall of the regime”. Other videos showed protesters chanting “Out with Russia. Out with Iran”, indicating popular frustration with the foreign powers that were sustaining Assad and his regime.
Against every expectation back in the early days of the Arab Spring, Assad has not only clung to power but, with the help of Russia and Iran, has managed to claw back about 70 percent of Syria from the ISIS military and the Syrian rebels who rose up against his dictatorial regime in the first instance.
The US alliance assembled to assist the democracy-demanding rebels was never fully committed. “No boots on the ground” was the understanding, and the assistance was restricted to logistical support and training. The highly successful on-the-ground fighting was left to the Kurdish Peshmerga troops in the Free Syrian army, and they were rewarded late in the day by President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops, and a US-Turkey deal aimed at fragmenting the Kurdish occupied region in north-eastern Syria known as Rojava.
The purchasing power of incomes within the areas being administered by the Assad regime have plummeted, and the UN says that the number of food-insecure people in the country has risen to more than nine million. Over 80 percent of Syrians are said to be living in poverty. Food, petrol, gas, and other basic goods are in short supply; electricity blackouts are widespread.
The Damascus regime, under sanctions from both the European Union and the US, has lost 75 percent of its GDP since the war began. In dire financial straits, it might have hoped for relief from one or other of its major allies, Russia or Iran. But both of them, too, are subject to economic sanctions and in no position to extend effective financial support.
The EU imposed restrictive economic measures against the Syrian regime and its supporters to express its displeasure at “the repression of the civilian population”. Sanctions currently in place include an oil embargo, restrictions on certain investments, a freeze of the assets of the Syrian central bank held in the EU, and export restrictions on equipment and technology that might be used for internal repression.
In addition a travel ban and an asset freeze are in operation against 269 persons and 69 entities in Syria considered to be responsible for the violent repression of the civilian population, benefiting from or supporting the regime, and/or being associated with such persons or entities.
As for US sanctions, mid-June is when a new batch – imposed under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Law − are due to take effect. Their purpose is to penalise foreign companies that deal with Syrian firms linked with the government. All of which is likely to exacerbate the regime’s economic problems, possibly to breaking point. (“Caesar” is a nod to the pseudonym used by the Syrian military police photographer who smuggled out nearly 55,000 photographs evidencing systematic torture perpetrated by the Assad government in prisons and detention facilities across the country).
The last time Geire Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, addressed the Security Council was in mid-May 2020. He had few words of comfort to offer. On the contrary, he told them, he had the new crisis of COVID-19 to contend with.
“The coronavirus,” he said, “has added a new layer to the grave economic predicament.” Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, has appealed to all sanctions-imposing bodies to waive sanctions restricting the ability of countries to fight the pandemic. Pedersen, acknowledging that “relevant States” had given such assurances, said he was closely following their commitments to apply humanitarian exemptions.
As for his remit under UN Resolution 2254 to facilitate peace talks, Pedersen virtually shrugged his shoulders.
Which perhaps explains the action taken by Russia on 8 June 2020. Unable to assist with the economic disaster, Syria’s major ally launched a series of air raids on villages in Syria’s northwest Idlib province, and on towns bordering neighboring Hama province. At least 12 towns were hit, and two civilians were killed.
The attacks were the first since the ceasefire, brokered by Turkey and Russia in March 2020, halted a three-month air and ground campaign that killed hundreds of people and created the worst displacement crisis of the 10-year war. Nearly a million people were forced to flee, many seeking shelter in the already overcrowded camps near the sealed border with Turkey.
This may be a push to try to secure Idlib finally for Assad, mopping up the rebel opposition forces and securing another chunk of pre-civil war Syrian territory for the regime. Even if successful, however, it is not likely to do anything to placate the nation’s fury at Assad and his government for the dire straits into which it has plunged the country.