This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to experts Dareen Khalifa and Jerome Drevon about ISIS in Syria after the death of its leader Abdullah Qardash, the precarious calm that prevails across the country and the evolution of al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in the north west, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Israeli airstrike targeted Damascus airport, northern Syria braced for possible Turkish offensive, and country awaited outcome of crunch vote on cross-border aid at UN Security Council in July. Israeli airstrike 10 June hit Damascus International Airport, injuring one civilian and causing damage to runways; airport next day suspended all flights and 23 June reopened; Israeli media claimed attack sought to disrupt weapons smuggling from Iran to Hizbollah. In north west, Idlib province’s March 2020 ceasefire held despite violations. Turkish President Erdoğan 1 June said new military operation targeting Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) announced in May would target Tal Rifaat and Manbij areas in Aleppo province; Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) 7 June said it was ready to cooperate with Syrian govt to resist Turkish incursion. Russia and govt reportedly reinforced positions close to Turkish border, amid reported near-daily rocket and artillery fire early month. While U.S. and Russian opposition appear for now to have forestalled offensive, operation, if it goes ahead, could create new instability in north and strain Türkiye’s ties with West. Fighting among factions of Türkiye-backed militia coalition Syrian National Army 18 June reportedly killed at least eight and injured scores in al-Bab city, Aleppo province; Türkiye next day reportedly facilitated deal to end clashes. Meanwhile, protests against high electricity prices and power outages erupted early month in Turkish-controlled areas of Aleppo province; security forces 3 June killed one protestor in Afrin city. Low-scale Islamic State (ISIS) attacks and Russian anti-ISIS airstrikes continued. U.S.-led coalition 16 June captured senior ISIS leader in northern Syria and 27 June killed “senior leader” of al-Qaeda-aligned militant group Hurras al-Din in Idlib province. In Raqqa province, ISIS 20 June killed eleven govt soldiers and two civilians in Jabal al-Bishri. Russia 15 June carried out airstrikes at al-Tanf military base used by U.S. and UK forces in Homs province; Russia reportedly notified U.S. beforehand. Ahead of expiry of UN mandate to deliver aid from Türkiye into opposition-controlled north west Syria on 10 July, UN Sec Gen 20 June appealed to UN Security Council to extend mandate; UN late month warned “people will die” without renewal.
Aleppo was devastated by bombing and shelling during the Syrian war. It remains unsafe, with residents subject to shakedowns by the regime’s security forces and various militias. Damascus and its outside backers should curb this predation as a crucial first step toward the city’s recovery.
After suffering grievously under ISIS, and during the battles to defeat it, Raqqa is being rebuilt. The calm is tenuous, however. The U.S. and partners should work toward long-term stability in Syria’s north east, through investment and talks about sustainable governance and security arrangements.
With the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib paused, the time is now for a deal sparing the rebellion’s last stronghold the full wrath of reconquest. The parties should pursue an improved ceasefire including the regime, Russia, Turkey and the Islamist militants entrenched in the province.
Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon have thought many times about going home but in the end deemed the risks too great. Donors should increase aid allowing the Lebanese government to continue hosting the Syrians, so that any decision they make to leave is truly voluntary.
A tumultuous month in north-eastern Syria has left a tense standoff among the regime, Turkey and the YPG, mediated by Russia and, to some degree, still the U.S. All parties should respect the ceasefire as the regime and YPG negotiate more stable long-term arrangements.
Rebuilding war-torn Syria poses a formidable challenge for European governments, which are unwilling to legitimise the Damascus regime by funding reconstruction. Instead, the EU and its member states could consider bankrolling small projects without regime involvement and testing an approach that trades aid for reforms.
Jailbreaks and prison riots were a central component of IS resurgence in Iraq and are a serious threat in Syria today.
I wouldn’t expect that Turkey would like to expand the zone it occupies in the northeast [of Syria]. A move like this will require a difficult conversation with the Russian.
Putting the lifeline of three million Syrians up for negotiations every six to 12 months, is an unsustainable situation. And Syrian civilians end up paying the price.
La direction du mouvement [HTC en Syrie] s’efforce désormais de régler ces problèmes. La manière dont elle se comporte vis-à-vis des minorités est en train de changer.
La meilleure des pires options qui se posent aujourd'hui [en Syrie], c'est une impasse prolongée.
The [recent] U.S. [air strikes in Syria were] aimed at a relatively insignificant target in an area where Iran's hands are somewhat tied.
Turkey is increasingly relying on airpower in its fight against the PKK. New parties have been drawn into the conflict as it spreads to new theatres in Iraq and Syria, which, for now at least, complicates potential efforts to settle things down.
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood talks to Crisis Group’s Turkey expert, Nigar Göksel, about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent trip to Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Turkey’s involvement in conflicts in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus, and its wider foreign relations.
Could the seizure of Afghanistan by the Taliban just before the twentieth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks be a turning point for jihadist militancy worldwide? (Online Event, 28th September 2021)
As Israeli strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria continue, there is always a risk that occasional spikes of violence could escalate into a broader confrontation.
Originally published in Middle East Eye
15 March marks the Syrian uprising’s tenth anniversary. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Syria expert Dareen Khalifa says that with a political solution out of reach, consolidating the existing ceasefires and alleviating human suffering is the best possible way forward for now.