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.
Clashes resumed between Kurdish and govt-affiliated forces in north east amid hostilities between Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces; Idlib ceasefire largely held and violence continued in south west. In north east, regime-backed militia National Defence Forces 20 April reportedly killed one Kurdish security forces officer in Qamishli city, triggering days-long fighting that killed at least three civilians and several fighters; Russia 25-26 April brokered ceasefire after initial attempt collapsed 22 April. Elsewhere in region, Turkish-backed armed groups and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued fighting in Ain Issa countryside throughout month. Following late March security operation, SDF 2 April said they had arrested 125 suspected Islamic State (ISIS)-affiliated individuals in al-Hol camp, which holds over 60,000 displaced persons as well as families of suspected ISIS fighters. In Idlib province in north west, March 2020 ceasefire continued to hold despite reported clashes, artillery shelling and Russian airstrikes in countryside throughout month; notably, suspected govt missile attack 8 April reportedly killed seven civilians in al-Najiya area. Jihadist rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham 5-16 April reportedly killed two and arrested at least 16 suspected members of al-Qaeda-linked group Hurras al-Din. In Daraa province in south west, following clashes in March between govt forces and former opposition fighters, unidentified gunmen 7-29 April reportedly killed at least 14 soldiers and ten former rebels who had enrolled in govt forces. In central desert, Russia continued airstrikes against suspected ISIS targets throughout month, reportedly killing some 29 ISIS militants 3-5 April and some 200 militants 16-19 April. Suspected ISIS militants 6 April reportedly killed one civilian and kidnapped at least 19 civilians and govt troops in al-Saan area in Hama province. Israel 8 April reportedly fired missiles and 22 April launched airstrikes on govt targets on outskirts of capital Damascus; errant Syrian anti-aircraft missile 22 April exploded near Dimona nuclear facility in Israel, prompting latter same day to strike Syrian missile batteries. President Assad 21 April said he would run for fourth consecutive term in elections scheduled for 26 May.
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.
Tens of thousands of foreign men, women and children affiliated with ISIS are detained in northeast Syria. The camps where they are held pose a formidable security and humanitarian challenge to the region. Western governments should, at minimum, accelerate the repatriation of women and children.
Once again, the Islamic State may be poised to recover from defeat in its original bases of Iraq and Syria. It is still possible, however, for the jihadist group’s many foes to nip its regrowth in the bud.
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.
The people who have been released [from detention camps in Syria] are struggling to reintegrate, and the economic situation outside is already very bad.
It seems that what is left of ISIS networks now is that they are getting organized in smaller groups of five or six people who may not be connected to each other even.
The Kurdish leadership has every reason to suspect that Russia will not push Damascus to accept anything that Turkey might interpret as protecting or legitimizing the YPG.
A sudden U.S. troop pull-out from north east Syria could prompt a humanitarian crisis, an Islamic State resurgence and renewed conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces, especially its Kurdish component. The U.S. should commit to an eventual, gradual and conditional withdrawal that protects civilians.
Sanctions on Syria aim to protect Syrian civilians from the regime but may end up hurting them instead. Washington should further clarify humanitarian exemptions, specify benchmarks related to civilian protection and offer temporary easing of sanctions as long as these are met.
A full-blown COVID-19 outbreak may trigger a greater human catastrophe in northern Syria, where ISIS activity persists and Idlib’s peace remains ever-fragile. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support a stronger ceasefire in Idlib and increase assistance to health and governance structures to keep COVID-19 and ISIS in check.