Priorities of the Syrian Regime After the Presidential Elections and the Possibility of Their Realisation

EPC | 30 Jun 2021

After the end of the presidential elections that took place on 26 May 2021, the Syrian regime announced a set of priorities that it would work on during the next phase. These included military, developmental and diplomatic items that are thought by the regime to constitute exits from the Syrian crisis. Realising those priorities requires high resources and costs, and political flexibility or a different political and diplomatic approach than before, which raises questions about the regime's ability to provide the appropriate conditions to achieve its priorities.

This paper highlights the Syrian regime's priorities in the next stage, and discusses its ability to realise them.

Assad after the elections: priorities and obstacles

The conduct of the electoral process, and its smooth completion, especially in the centres of major cities, proved two facts that constitute the current political and field reality in Syria:

1. Assad no longer faces a serious challenge from inside Syria, and has become safe from military and existential threats, regardless of the means and methods he used to reach this situation.

2. Assad will be able to take advantage of the current situation to shape the conditions for discussion and negotiation about the future of Syria, and any future move by the international actors in the Syrian file would have to submit to this fact, because Assad, under the Russian-Iranian protection of him, would remain in control of a large part of the territories and population of Syria.

On the other hand, the priorities of the Assad regime in the next stage, and the obstacles facing those priorities, are as follows:

First, completing control of the Syrian territories

Buthaina Shaaban, adviser to the Syrian President, has confirmed that his priority after winning the elections is to liberate the Syrian territories and to strengthen his relations with his allies.[1] This indicates the regime's desire to control the remainder of the Syrian territories outside its control, which amounts to one third of the country’s area and embraces the largest part of Syria's wealth, in addition to its border location with Iraq and Turkey. Besides, regaining control over those areas supports the regime’s legitimacy on the ground and enhances its representation of the Syrian state. Those areas are under the direct control of the United States of America in the east, and Turkey in the north, where the two sides support their proxies in those areas, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, QSD) and the Syrian armed factions, as fronts for their control of those areas.

Despite the relative calm on the fighting fronts in the east and north, the skirmishes, especially in the north, with the armed opposition factions have not stopped. Indeed, their pace has recently increased, and the Syrian regime has mobilised, on the lines of contact with the armed opposition factions, its military elite, such as the Republican Guards, the Fourth Division and the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, led by Suheil al-Hassan, in addition to numerous Iranian militias. It is noted that during the armistice phase in Idlib since March 2020, Russia has been able to introduce many changes in the area’s theatre of operations, namely providing the regime forces with modern anti-armour missiles and fast transport vehicles, and conducted intensive training for the existing forces. Opposition sources confirm that those changes may lead to upending the scales in any battle in favour of Assad's forces.[2]

In the areas east of the Euphrates, the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, seeks to achieve breakthroughs in its favour on a stronger and more coherent front than the Idlib regions. It appears to be retreating before the QSD forces that are trying to nibble new areas from the regime’s control after they expelled the National Defence Forces in Qamishli, and the possibility of repeating the operation in al-Hasakah, with the aim of weakening the regime’s influence to the greatest degree, benefiting from the umbrella of US protection. A US military intelligence report revealed that the Syrian regime has sought to threaten US forces in the areas east of the Euphrates and on the border line between Iraq and Syria, where the US forces monitored the activities of the Syrian regime by working to build relationships with local tribes in the east of the country to provoke unrest and weaken the US relationship with those tribes, as well as supporting attacks that can be carried out against the international coalition forces and the QSD.[3]

However, despite the fact that the regime forces have an advantage in Idlib against the opposition factions, the region remains governed by Russian-Turkish understandings. While the relations between those two actors are not at their best at present, they are not expected to experience a dramatic shift. From an operational point of view, the war in the north does not seem easy, even if Russia wants it to be, even as the Russian military is pushing to aggravate the situation in northern Syria, given that more than 15,000 Turkish soldiers are present in the region, and Assad’s forces cannot confront the Turkish forces that are backed by drones that inflicted heavy losses on them in the February 2020 round of battles. Any confrontation calls for Russian air involvement for which Russia does not appear to be prepared for the following reasons:

1. The scene in northern Syria is subject to international balances in which the US and the European Union (EU) play a role. The US, which has announced its commitment to the humanitarian side in the Syrian file, would find itself in a critical situation in the event of a Russian-Syrian attack on a small geographical area that shelters more than three million civilians. In addition, Europe would find in the process a direct threat to its national security due to the waves of refugees that would follow that attack in its direction.

2. The Syrian situation is linked to Russia's major strategic calculations and its regional and international relations. Russia, which is massing its forces on the borders with Ukraine and Europe, is not ready to open a new front in Syria. Russia realises that Turkey would enjoy US and European sympathy in this situation, which Russia does not want at this time in light of its attempts to distance Turkey from the West.[4]

As for eastern Syria, the situation seems more complicated due to the presence of US forces, which have been working for some time to strengthen their bases with the latest types of weapons, in light of the Biden administration's insistence on staying in Syria as one of the theatres of confronting Russian influence in the world.[5]

Second, improving the economic situation

During his visit to the industrial city of Adra in the countryside of Damascus, the Syrian President stressed that "the priority in the next stage is for the economic situation, and how to overcome the obstacles facing the productive sector in general to mitigate the effects of the siege and create more job opportunities in Syria". Assad indicated the need for capital because the existing capital is not enough due to the embargo.[6]

The Assad regime seeks to encourage capital to invest in Syria. Days before the presidential elections, the Syrian President issued the new Investment Law No. 18 of 2021 with the aim of creating a competitive investment environment to attract capital. The law grants unprecedented customs and tax exemptions for investment projects, as it abolishes customs and financial duties on imports of machinery and equipment, production lines, and service transport vehicles for projects that obtain an investment licence.[7] The Syrian regime has also managed to stabilise the exchange rate of the Syrian pound (lira) after the sharp decline in its value, as a result of a number of security and banking measures. The regime aspires to attract China and the Arab Gulf states to invest in Syria in the next stage. It has estimates of the possibility that those parties would accept for reasons related to their need for great investment opportunities, and given the competition between the various parties to obtain investments with high economic returns.

However, improving the economic situation faces several obstacles, the most prominent of which are the following:

1. The migration of local capital. Most of the Syrian private companies have left the country for Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and other countries, and the regime's attempts to negotiate with them to return to Syria have ended in failure.[8]

2. Most of the country's resources are out of the control of the Syrian regime which lacks any resources that would help it accomplish its operational plans.

3. Syria continues to be an unsafe environment for investments due to the security chaos and the control of militias and warlords over the security situation in the country. According to the annual report of the Peace Index of the Institute for Economics and Peace, Syria ranks third among the least secure countries in the world.[9]

4. The instability of the currency; the recent stability was the result of great measures and pressures carried out by the security services, and not a result of tangible economic improvement. There are possibilities of a re-fall in the pound, with the impact that this would have on the stability of the state institutions and social stability in general.[10]

5. The Caesar Act which is designed to prevent the flow of foreign investments into Syria. There does not appear to be any changes in the horizon in this regard, with the exception of the exemptions provided by the US Treasury Department regarding the purchase of products to combat the Corona disease.[11]

Third, the return of Arab relations

The Syrian regime considers the return of Arab relations with it an important priority in the next stage. It focuses primarily on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), as the regime assesses that the KSA is capable of securing a cover for its return to the Arab community, and that it would be possible to benefit from KSA and Gulf funds in reconstruction. Russia is making efforts in this context as it believes that the establishment of diplomatic relations between Syria and the KSA would give a strong signal to the EU and the US of the need to reconsider their position on the Syrian regime.

Despite the Syrian regime’s promotion of a close Arab return to Syria and the existence of a communications traffic in this regard, the facts reveal that those Arab contacts with Damascus are still at their beginnings, and are subject to many tests.[12] Besides, the Arab actors continue to cling to their positions on the need for an Arab consensus on the return of relations with Syria. The KSA permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) Abdallah Al-Mouallimi stressed that it is too early to talk about the return of Saudi relations with the regime in Syria, especially since the regime continues to carry out its attacks on civilians in Syria and practises a policy of racist cleansing, noting that there are many steps that the regime in Syria should take before talk about restoring relations with it. With regard to the return of the regime’s seat in the Arab League, al-Mouallimi said that he does not think that the regime’s return to the League would take place soon because the decision to return requires a collective decision by the League, and most Arab countries have reservations about the situation in Syria, so it is difficult to talk about its return to its seat.[13]

The plan to restore Arab relations faces several obstacles, the most important of which are the following:

1. The ineffectiveness of using economic investment as a tool for political investment in the Syrian arena. Besides, the main and significant Syrian economic sectors and resources have mainly fallen in the hands of the Russians and Iranians, pursuant to official agreements.[14]

2. Syria’s refusal to cooperate on security files, specifically the drug trade which has become a source of threat to many Arab countries. Western sources believe that the reason for this is that drug trafficking has become a major source in the Syrian shadow economy in light of the existence of Western sanctions. It generates billions of US dollars, and it would not be easy to give it up in light of the growing role of the networks of the new war rich and the need for them and their money presently.[15]

3. The US position rejecting the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime, given that some US actors believe that this would be a reward for Iran, which would lead it to believe that it controls regional politics. This would put the US allies in the Arab region, especially in the Gulf region, in a defensive position with little chance to get out of it.[16]

The Syrian regime’s expectations, bets and cards

The Syrian regime has not put forward any programmes, action plans, or ideas regarding the realisation of its priorities and options in the next stage, and no mobilisation whatsoever of resources, diplomatic, financial, or even military, has been observed in order to pursue the path of achieving those goals.

Through the observation of the statements made by some regime officials and the media affiliated with it, the following becomes apparent:

  • The regime's reliance and building upon unreal indicators. Noteworthy in this regard is the restoration of relations with Arab countries, which is one of the priorities at this stage. For example, the non-issuance by Arab countries of statements that object to the holding of the Syrian elections, as was the case in the 2014 elections, is relied upon. However, this indicator is not sufficient to say that restoring relations with the Arab region would be smooth, especially after the crystallisation of an international position that refuses to rehabilitate the regime. On the other hand, the regime has not adopted a clear plan or specific mechanisms, nor did it formulate a specific approach to attract Arab countries and encourage them to re-establish relations with it. The media discourse that talks about this matter expects that the initiative be taken by the Arab countries and not the other way around. Indeed, the regime refuses even to submit a request to regain its membership in the Arab League.[17]
  • The dominance of wishful thinking in analysis and prediction, where the hard facts, complexities and entanglements surrounding the Syrian file are ignored. Arguments are mostly built on the elections and the great presence they have achieved. The elections are presented as an important variable that would have a positive impact on the outside world.
  • Reassuring the interior, as the regime seeks to reassure the Syrian interior that there are attempts to get out of the bad conditions, and endure the harsh conditions pending the near relief.

The Syrian regime’s bets on its ability to achieve its goals are based on its reading of some changes in regional and international politics, including the following:

  • The arrival of the Democrats to power in the US, with what this means in terms of change in the priorities of US policy in the region, which is based on the main title of reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran, so that everything else is considered less important details, in addition to the conviction of the Democrats, as reflected by Barack Obama during the period of his administration, that the Syrian opposition was unable to form a convincing alternative to Assad, and thus there was no need for the US to engage in a losing battle to topple Assad.
  • The fact that the Arab countries have to open up to Syria for reasons including the fall of the US veto at one stage, or as a response to the nuclear agreement with Iran, or in implementation of an Arab vision adopted by many parties to the effect that it is necessary to contain Syria to stop Iranian and Turkish expansion. Another reason is betting on the Chinese presence in reconstruction projects as a result of the development of China’s relations with Iran after the strategic partnership agreement between them, or as a result of the intensification of tension with the US, which would motivate many funding centres, especially the Gulf ones, to engage in reconstruction projects in Syria. They also include betting on the US-Iranian nuclear agreement, and the possibility of its reflection on Iran's arms and allies, and the Biden administration's need to make concessions regarding the Caesar Act in the next stage.

The Syrian decision-makers believe that they possess some power cards that would push international and regional actors to establish dialogue with them and restore diplomatic and economic relations. There is the security card, considering that the Syrian security services have a databank about Islamic and extremist organisations, as a result of the penetration by those services of the devices of those organisations and the arrest of prominent figure therein, and knowledge of the map of the affiliation of the members of the organisations and the places where some of them are likely to have settled after leaving Syria which has often linked security cooperation to political relations.[18]

There is the refugee card, which is a file that concerns European countries, and cannot be dealt with without cooperation and understanding with the Syrian regime, especially in light of the presence of European countries calling for the need to address this file by reaching an understanding with the regime directly. The refugee crisis in Denmark has revealed the problem of not dealing with the Syrian regime directly, and it is not expected that this file would be closed in the near term. Syrians' attempts to reach Europe continue.

There is the card of reconstruction, which would be attractive to many European companies after the end of the war and the success of the political process.

Conclusion

The priorities of the Syrian regime, in the post-election stage, reflect the regime’s desire for and bets on moving to a new phase that would end the page of risks to its stability and viability once and for all. Its success in holding the elections, with significant Russian support, has confirmed the continuation of the Assad regime as an ultimate fact in the Syrian situation that has to be dealt with by the other actors at some point in time, especially in light of the opposition's inability to form a convincing alternative to Assad.

However, the factor of time, which the Syrian regime has excelled in investing during the crisis stage, seems to have become an element of pressure on the regime and its ally Russia. This is evident through their rush to reduce the stages to rehabilitate the regime and remove the obstacles that stand in its way. This is evident through the package of priorities adopted by both parties, in which the element of unrealism appears, especially in terms of arranging the priorities and the ability to realise them.

Apart from the propaganda dimension of creating contexts that do not seem real about an international and Arab rapprochement with the Syrian regime, and the possibilities of investment flows in the next stage, Russia and the regime are facing challenges that are not easy. Syria’s international position is unlikely to change for most actors in the next stage as long as there is no real political change in Damascus. Besides, the limitations and conditions set by most of the actors cannot be dismantled and resolved through the negotiating capabilities of Russia and the Assad regime.

Russia is also not expected to be able to change the military facts as a result of the field obstacles imposed by the influential countries on the ground. Therefore, Russia has no choice but to negotiate about moving the political process. In view of the loss of international confidence in this exit as a result of its obstruction for a long period by Russia and the regime, Russia, with the aim of promoting this path, has proposed the idea of ​​holding early elections in the event that the opposition reaches an agreement with the regime on a new constitutional text.

With the stability of the US administration's position on the Syrian regime, which was confirmed by President Biden to his Russian counterpart at the Geneva summit held on 16 June 2021, in addition to the lack of interest in finding a quick solution to the Syrian crisis and focusing only on the humanitarian dimension, Russia will find itself targeted by this policy which aims to exhaust it in the Syrian crisis to the fullest extent. Perhaps this would prompt it to formulate new approaches, especially after the failure of its Arab and international attempts to rehabilitate the Syrian regime.

Accordingly, it can be concluded that the Syrian situation will remain stagnant in the next stage, unless there are significant changes in the political process, which to a large extent would be decided by Russia whose options have greatly diminished after the failure of its diplomatic efforts to rehabilitate the Syrian regime.

References

[1] Interview of Buthaina Shaaban with the Al-Mayadeen TV channel, 2 June 2021. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qy-gG3NXb5A

[2] Khaled al-Khateeb, “Idlib: Russian anti-armour confuses the opposition and may tip the scales”, Al-Modon website, 20 May 2021.

[3] Moath al-Omari, “America reveals the Assad regime’s communication with the tribes of eastern Syria to ‘threaten’ its forces: a report by the Pentagon indicates that the Damascus government is preparing a permanent presence for its allies”, Asharq al-Awsat, 16 June 2021.

[4] Marwan Kabalan, “Syria: the regime's calculations and bets”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 2 June 2021.

[5] Bahaa al-Awam, “Russia’s alternatives in Syria”, the London-based Al-Arab, 10 March 2021.

[6] “Assad during a visit to the industrial area of Adra: ‘Syria has the capabilities to overcome the siege’”, Russia Today, 9 June 2021.

[7] “President Assad issues a new investment law that aims to create a competitive investment environment that attracts capital”, SANA News Agency, 19 May 2021.

[8] Adnan Abdelrazek, “The trap of temptations for investors to return to Syria: the regime offers guarantees, most notably non-confiscation”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 3 June 2021.

[9] “Syria is the third least secure country in the world in 2020”, Enab Baladi, 18 June 2021.

[10] Eyad al-Jaafari, “A quiet summer for the Syrian pound: what about the autumn?”, Al-Modon, 17 June 2021

[11] “The US Treasury announces guidelines and exemptions in sanctions against Syria and Iran linked to Corona”, CNN Arabic, 17 June 2021.

[12] Ibrahim Hamidi, “Is there an Arab delay in ‘normalisation’ with Damascus?”, Asharq al-Awsat, 10 June 2021.

[13] “Saudi Arabia and Qatar confirm that there is no room for normalisation with Assad”, al-Khaleej Online, 9 June 2021.

[14] Eyad al-Jaafari, “No Gulf investments to Syria soon”, Al-Modon website, 10 June 2021.

[15] “Is there an Arab delay in ‘normalisation’ with Damascus?”, op. cit.

[16] Ola Alrifai and Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Policy Consequences of Arab State Normalization with the Assad Regime”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2 June 2021.

[17] Post-presidential election scenarios: Towards transformations in favour of Damascus?”, Lebanese al-Akhbar newspaper, 7 June 2021.

[18] “Assad bargains with the West: restoring diplomatic and political relations in exchange for security cooperation”, Eldorar Alshamia, 19 June 2021.

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