Syria Insight: More devastation and hardships expected in 2023
Syria experienced another 12 months of heartbreak in 2022, the country’s 11th year of conflict. While the large-scale regime and Russian assaults on opposition areas have decreased, violence has continued to plague the country, with 64 civilians killed in November alone.
Instead, other disasters have befallen Syrians, including an outbreak of cholera which has cost 100 lives, while an economic crisis shattered the lives of millions, from regime loyalists to the millions displaced in opposition areas.
Instability has also rocked southern provinces with assassinations and small-scale uprisings hitting Daraa province, already drowned in a deluge of the drug captagon.
We look at the three key events that will mark 2023 in Syria.
"Living conditions haven't been this bad since the end of the Ottoman Empire, which is over a century ago. We've never seen people in regime-held areas living in such conditions"
Syria's economy, long in the doldrums, has been hit by a major crisis, caused by a depreciating lira and other factors, plunging 90 percent of the population below the poverty line.
The sight of children rooting through garbage is now said to be a common sight in cities such as Damascus, where poverty is worse than at any point in living memory.
"Living conditions haven't been this bad since the end of the Ottoman Empire, which is over a century ago. We've never seen people in regime-held areas living in such conditions,” said Karam Shaar, Syria programme manager at the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks.
The situation in regime areas has been made worse by uncontrollable inflation, sanctions, massive unemployment, and rampant corruption, with some saying Syria - if not already there - is close to becoming a failed state.
Shaar said that homes have access to electricity for minutes per day rather than hours, while public sector and other workers have chosen to stay at home, with the price of transport to their offices and factories more than they would be paid.
"If you are a front desk employee and you can live off bribery then, yes, you will still go to work. If you work in a factory or you can't benefit from your position in the public sector then you would most certainly not be working at the moment," he said.
While Syria is not yet at the level of biblical-scale famine, hunger is everywhere and the situation for ordinary Syrians is bleak.
With constitutional talks between the regime and opposition deadlocked it means no hope of businesspeople returning and investing, while dreams of construction aid are similarly futile.
"I think the regime is failing miserably at managing the economy. We appreciate there has been war, sanctions, and support from allies - Russia, and Iran - is waning, but the core remains down to economic mismanagement," Shaar said.
"Bashar Al-Assad's desire to partner up with any meaningful business enterprise in Syria is scaring off capital and investors. If economic management continues this way we can only expect things to get a lot worse."
While many in the regime's upper echelons continue to live a life of relative luxury, its loyalists - many from the Alawites who lost sons keeping Assad in power - have suffered terribly.
"The support base of the regime is clearly shrinking and the share of the population that benefits from this regime is becoming far smaller," said Shaar.
Any challenge to Bashar Al-Assad's rule depends on how elements of the regime or others respond to the economic crisis.
"It depends on whether people will react or not. If they accept these conditions there could be famine, and we have seen this in so many places throughout history.”
The Holodomor famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 and the devastation unleashed by Chairman Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward killed millions but resulted in no major challenges to the Soviet and Communist Chinese regimes.
"What is common between these famines is the assumption that they can't do anything about it, so they must live with the situation. But I think conditions can get a lot, lot worse," Shaar added.
After the devastating repression unleashed by the regime following the 2011 anti-government protests, and a ruthless security apparatus still in place, Syrians will likely be weighing up the cost of protests with extreme caution.
"The support base of the regime is clearly shrinking and the share of the population that benefits from this regime is becoming far smaller"
The drug that is helping fuel the Syrian regime could continue to wreak havoc in towns and cities across the country.
The financial crisis in Syria is seeing industrial and farming communities switching their expertise and efforts into captagon production and smuggling, one of the few industries capable of bringing any profits for cash-strapped Syrians.
Regime officials and militia leaders are said to be making the most handsome profits from the trade.
Captagon, a mild amphetamine, has become the drug of choice for hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East, owing to its relatively low cost and ability to boost energy levels and stunt appetites.
Its clientele ranges from long-haul truck drivers in Syria to party-goers in Saudi Arabia, with demand said to be on the rise.
"Captagon trade and production will undoubtedly increase in the year 2023 as demand rises in primary destination markets in the GCC and new markets are carved out in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and North Africa," said Caroline Rose, head of the Power Vacuums Program at the Newslines Institute and a leading researcher on the captagon trade.
"Trafficking will also likely evolve to identify new transit markets as neighbouring transit countries like Jordan impose border restrictions in response to the trade, as well as new interdiction and detection technologies in destination countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia."
Jordan - an important transit point for captagon - has worked hard to quash the illicit drugs trade via its borders with frequent armed and often deadly clashes with smugglers on its border with Syria.
"While the uptick in Jordanian monitoring and interdiction efforts have shifted some waves of captagon routes in Syria eastward into Iraq, it's likely that captagon smugglers will still seek to use Jordan as a primary transit country with advanced smuggling methods such as underground tunnels and transporting shipments via drone, to bypass Jordanian border security," Rose said.
"Additionally, smugglers will continue to exploit weather conditions during the winter along the Syrian-Jordanian border and resort to violent clashes with border forces in remote areas when necessary."
As always, drug traders are often one step ahead of customs officials, finding ingenious ways of smuggling pills to the Gulf, despite successful busts on captagon hauls hidden in pomegranate and other seemingly innocent cargo.
“We will also likely see smuggling tactics become more advanced as traffickers try and find loopholes with packaging materials, transportation methods, and routes that are harder to detect and track,” Rose added.
One hurdle for the drug smugglers and regime officials believed culpable in the trade are efforts in the US to tackle the spread of captagon in the region.
The recently passed National Defence Authorization Act includes a provision to encourage US security to “monitor, coordinate, and disrupt” the captagon trade, Rose said.
“It has elevated awareness of the captagon issue amongst key US policymakers, as well as shined a light on the trade's connections to US adversaries in the region, such as the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and Iran-aligned militias, instructing US national security agencies to respond in kind,” Rose told The New Arab.
Despite this, captagon will remain an important weapon in the arsenal of the Syrian regime, both financially and politically.
"While the captagon trade has played a key role in halting Jordanian normalisation efforts with the Syrian regime, it has done the opposite with rapprochement efforts between Syria and other regional players, such as the UAE," Rose added.
"The regime has touted the captagon trade and used plausible deniability as a tool for a seat at the table in regional dialogues about illicit economies. Dangling the potential for disrupting outgoing captagon flows in front of potential partners, the regime has used the trade as a key pressure tactic on transit and destination countries in the region."
"Captagon trade and production will undoubtedly increase in the year 2023 as demand rises in primary destination markets in the GCC and new markets are carved out in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and North Africa"
On 13 November, a bomb exploded at a bustling street in Istanbul, killing eight people and injuring dozens more.
Despite no claim of responsibility, Turkish authorities quickly blamed the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and rounded up suspects of a militant cell it said was responsible for the blast.
More alarming was the threat of a new offensive on Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, including the emblematic border town of Kobane.
The assault was stalled following Russian and US pressure, which also saw Ankara's security worries sated and subdued, for now, with the withdrawal of People's Protection Units (YPG) from the Turkish border and integration of Kurdish Asayish militias into regime security apparatus.
"The US showed more tolerance to Turkish concerns at first and Ankara got the F-35 deal (previously cancelled by Washington) back on track and also the US will likely take some steps with the SDF similar to the ones Russia took," he told The New Arab.
"If Turkey went ahead with the military operation, it would have jeopardised the whole relationship with the US on both sides of the aisle."
Bombings, such as the one in Istanbul, have been far less frequent in recent years, highlighting the Turkish military's improved counter-terrorism abilities which was perhaps a factor in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision not to push ahead with a new assault over the border.
One key weapon in Turkey's arsenal against Kurdish militants has been drones, which proved so effective in repulsing a regime assault on Idlib province in 2020. Ankara has carried out scores of attacks on Kurdish militants in northern Syria and Iraq, at little cost to its own troops.
There are also fewer attacks on Turkish gendarmerie and military units in Kurdish-majority areas of southern and eastern Turkey, another sign of success for Ankara's current counter-terrorism strategy, Ghazi added.
"The Turkish government will continue to take measures that will make it difficult for refugees to stay and many will decide to return to SNA-held areas (Turkey's proxies in Syria) or they will be forced to"
"Inside Turkey, the terrorism situation has improved in the past few years, and we rarely see attacks on Turkish bases, but the PKK has resorted to small-scale attacks in civilian areas, such as on police stations and vehicles,” he said.
“It shows the PKK has lost its stronghold in the mountains and resorted to sleeper cells, which is a win for Turkey. When it comes to Syria the current counter-terrorism strategy will be enough for Turkey because it doesn't want to lose soldiers in a fight abroad, especially before the general election."
It will be this political issue that will dominate Erdogan's thinking in 2023 and shape his Syria strategy moving forward.
Turkey's main policy toward Syria has also seen a paradigm shift, from arming and hosting the opposition in 2011 (along with 3.7 million Syrian refugees) to a new wily pragmatism, tempered by domestic woes.
According to one poll, the refugee situation is now the primary concern for Turks - who vote in a general election in June - behind the economy.
Both these issues are frequently conflated by the Turkish opposition who have called for normalisation with the Assad regime to allow for the return of Syrian refugees. Erdogan now appears to be taking steps in this direction.
"Now voters can assume he has a plan and his relationship with Russia will help him… normalisation, and negotiations before it, will aim at creating better conditions for Syrians to return to but the regime can't be trusted and the situation in Syria is pushing people out of the country," Ghazi said.
“The Turkish government will continue to take measures that will make it difficult for refugees to stay and many will decide to return to SNA-held areas (Turkey's proxies in Syria) or they will be forced to."
Yet the threats of violence and regime detention will be enough to prevent most Syrians from returning home, despite the suffocating conditions they are experiencing in Turkey.
"People are still afraid of regime detention, extortion and kidnapping for ransom, which happens daily in Syria, as well as the absence of any aid or support," he added.
Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin