Syria in 2022: Deadlock, violence, and a possible famine

Syria in 2022: Deadlock, violence, and a possible famine
9 min read
31 December, 2021
As Syria enters its eleventh year of war there appears little hope for the situation to improve in 2022. The New Arab spoke with four Syria experts about the issues Syria might face in the coming year.

The war in Syria marked its ten-year anniversary in 2021, another grim milestone for the country that appears marching onward into terminal decline.

While levels of violence in 2020 remained relatively low compared to other years, for many in Syria the situation is as grim as ever.

Syrians face an economy in turmoil, unabated and unchecked Covid-19, while the threat of bombing, banditry, and arbitrary detention hangs over much of the population.

We look at some of the main issues that will affect Syria in 2022.

"The factors keeping Syria economically destitute are endless - the collapse of the lira, sanctions, Covid-19, dilapidated or destroyed infrastructure, and an incompetent, corrupt government"

Northeast Syria

Control of Northeast Syria remains divided between US-backed Kurdish forces, Turkey, and the Syrian regime with pockets of Islamic State group militancy. 

Tensions between the four sides have seen conflict and bloodshed, with the northeast's fiefdoms creating disruptions to trade and cooperation on security issues, as well as Covid-19.

Fears of a new Turkish offensive in northeast Syria did not play out in 2021, but the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will remain on high alert over the coming 12 months. Ankara will also remain vigilant about the threat of Syrian Kurdish militancy around its borders. 

Some of the 3000 Syrian Kurds, supporters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), now known as the Kurdish Democratic Union, demonstrate in the Hilaliyah stadium in support of their former leader Abdullah Ocalan (seen on flag) being held in a Turkish jail, during their New Year celebrations
Northeast Syria remains a hotbed of sectarian conflict and civilian displacement as regional and international actors tussle for control [Getty Images]

"A Turkish offensive is always on the table, even if they have not pursued that option, I would not rule it out indefinitely," said Dareen Khalifa, Senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"This is the elephant in the room as Turkey continues to perceive the SDF dominance over north east Syria as a threat to its national security."

Turkey will keep the option of a military offensive against the SDF on the table in 2022 but Ankara is also conscious of the international backlash that followed its last major incursion against the group in 2019, Khalifa said. 

Instead of a ground war, Turkey might choose to step up its drone campaign against Kurdish elements in northeast Syria.

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Khalifa said the US is also mindful of the fallout after its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and will want to avoid a similar scenario in Syria, which would only strengthen its adversaries including the Islamic State group. 

"The trajectory of this relationship might be a stalemate for the foreseeable future as long as the US continues to have a military presence in the northeast and offers protection to the SDF." 

Idlib

The last stronghold of opposition and Islamist forces in Syria was subject to slow and sustained jabs throughout 2021, the bloodiest bout resulting in the Ariha massacre in October which left 11 people dead, including four children.

The fate of the three to four million civilians in Idlib is ultimately in the hands of the three guarantors of a ceasefire covering northern Syria - Turkey, Iran, and Russia.

"Limited resources and an economy in tatters mean that intra-jihadist clashes could intensify as militant groups battle for control of Idlib's neighbourhoods"

Idlib, dominated by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), has been increasingly economically tied to neighbouring Turkey and the Turkish lira has become the de-facto currency in the province.

Mohanad Hage Ali, Research Fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center, said that while this has helped Idlib avoid the worst effects of the economic meltdown in regime areas, the currency crisis in Turkey is being felt across northern Syria.

"The people of Idlib have experienced both the crisis in Syria and the crisis in Turkey and I think that will have humanitarian consequences," said Hage Ali.

"Instability has become a staple of there. The clashes, the possibility of (regime) military operations, and Russian airstrikes hang over everyone. This is having a negative impact on the situation in Idlib and Syria and the people are looking at many years of economic hardship."

After the Turkish lira lost half of its value to the dollar in 2021, HTS is now pushing for traders and residents to use the US dollar as an alternative. 

The promotion of the dollar by a group sanctioned by the US as a terrorist organisation appears a short-lived option and it is unlikely that HTS will stave off an inevitable financial crisis.

The group will also be aware that the presence of transnational jihadist groups - such as the Turkistan Islamic Party - will keep Idlib in the crosshairs of international powers and keep the province dogged in instability.

While HTS has sought to weaken the influence of jihadist groups, such as Hurras Al-Din, clashes between rival Islamist factions have erupted in parts of Idlib, such as the former Shia village of Fuaa, over territorial dominance, Hage Ali said.

Limited resources and an economy in tatters mean that intra-jihadist clashes could intensify as militant groups battle for control of Idlib's neighbourhoods.

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"The Turkistan Islamic Party have fought other groups about who gets what and how they divide sectors within the captured towns and this is resulting in more instability in Idlib," said Hage Ali.

"Looking at the year ahead, there's no political solution in Syria. You have a normalisation push, but that will not have an immediate economic impact, the shootdown between Iran and Israel might escalate, so if you combine all these - and add the economic instability in Turkey - then I think we have quite a pocketful of problems looking ahead."

Syrian regime

In regime areas, the plight of Syrians remains equally grim. The factors keeping Syria economically destitute are endless - the collapse of the lira, sanctions, Covid-19, dilapidated or destroyed infrastructure, and an incompetent, corrupt government.

With nine of ten Syrians living in poverty and job opportunities sparse, more young men could be forced, out of pure desperation, to enlist in regime militias.

Such a trend would perpetuate the endless cycle of violence, lawlessness, and division in Syria.

"Across the country, unemployment, food shortages, and inflation have made the situation considerably worse for most Syrians with staples such as bread, pulses, and wheat becoming increasingly unaffordable"

"Because of the deterioration in economic conditions, not only in regime areas but all across the country, you would expect a rise in crime and also, depending on funding, I think there will be a greater tendency toward militarisation," said Karam Shaar, Research Director at the Operations and Policy Center.

"More people will find themselves out of job and in need of a source of income and so joining various militias will be the only option for many male adults and this might trigger further conflict."

Syria remains largely isolated from the outside world due to sanctions and its economy is in the doldrums with little opportunity for significant outside investment or reconstruction funding. 

With no political settlement in place, Shaar said the likelihood of comprehensive normalisation with the regime is unlikely, which might provide some relief for the regime and open up opportunities for investment.

People walk before a giant billboard showing Syria's president Bashar al-Assad dressed in military uniform along a street in the capital Damascus on December 15, 2021
People walk before a giant billboard showing Syria's president Bashar al-Assad dressed in military uniform along a street in the capital Damascus [Getty Images]

Across the country, unemployment, food shortages, and inflation have made the situation considerably worse for most Syrians with staples such as bread, pulses, and wheat becoming increasingly unaffordable.

"The statistics for food insecurity have never been worse. We are predicting that if current trends continue, all across Syria, then the country might actually be hit with famine," said Shaar.

"The economic situation in regime-held areas has never been worse, not in living memory. Living conditions are miserable and the vast majority of the population continues to live in poverty."

In December, the UN warned that Syria's wheat production was its lowest level in 50 years with a decline of over 60 percent in 2021. 

The possibility of importing food is also off the cards due to the government lacking funds and the weak lira, meaning aid could play a pivotal role in patronage and power in 2022.

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"Aid forms one of the significant arteries of the regime and it gives it economic and political leverage," said Shaar.

In a desperate bid to gain capital, figures within the Syrian regime appear to have turned to the narcotics trade with the illicit manufacture and export of amphetamines.

Captagon misuse is becoming a major concern for states in the Middle East and they have stepped up border checks on goods coming in from Syria and its neighbours. 

"If the regime evades these restrictions, then you would expect its coffers to start to fill up a little. But this will not trickle down to ordinary people and generally speaking the situation is going to remain very, very grim in regime areas," Shaar said.

"Syria remains largely isolated from the outside world due to sanctions and its economy is in the doldrums with little opportunity for significant outside investment or reconstruction funding"

International

The opaqueness of the Biden administration's Syria policy in 2021, a touted gas deal between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, and diplomatic maneuvers by some Arab states, have led to increasing talk of normalisation with the Assad regime.

The failure of the constitutional talks between the Syrian regime opposition, and Europe and the US appearing unchanged in their views toward Assad, make this unlikely.

While some regional states have warmed ties with Damascus they appear motivated by practical factors, such as dealing with problems emanating from Syria. Any hope of reciprocity from the Assad regime to these overtures has so far been short-lived.

Jordan hoped its steps toward normalisation might encourage the Assad regime to stop using the kingdom as a transit point for the drugs trade but vast shipments of Captagon continue to make their way over the border.

Trade between the two countries has not picked up to the levels the regime might have hoped for and a touted gas pipeline to Lebanon - via Jordan and Syria - remains at a standstill, said Bente Scheller, Head of Middle East division, Heinrich Boell Foundation.

"The regime will probably do everything it can do to make the gas pipeline happen, to benefit from it, but so far there's nothing the regime has really done to give normalisation any content," Scheller told The New Arab.

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The Arab League remains split on readmitting Syria. The Syrian regime is unlikely to take the first step toward its readmission as this would require it to repent for spurning efforts by the body to resolve the crisis at the start of the war, Scheller said.

"The constant rejection by the regime to show any signs of remorse, to make any concessions, even the need to make an official request to rejoin the League would be too much for them," Scheller added.

Another member state could still do this on behalf of Damascus but would face strong resistance from more powerful states.

Judging from recent statements by Riyadh, Saudi Arabia appears to be opposed to Syria's unconditional return to the League, Scheller said.

"If the regime would be readmitted this would obviously be a diplomatic victory for the regime and encourage it to continue down the path it has already chosen. Its return would not mean a lot because the Arab League, as such, is not a powerful institution, but I think it would be more about the regime's image being polished," said Scheller.

"Obviously those in Europe and the US in favour of normalisation with the Syrian regime would point to this and say 'if they can do it why can’t we?' So far I cannot see that happening."

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin