As a humanitarian disaster unfolds in Idlib, the last bastion of Syria’s Islamist rebels, the question is whether accommodation is possible between the militants and their foes. External actors should answer by gauging the insurgents’ ability to maintain calm and their sincerity about aiding civilians.
Govt forces with Russian air support continued to advance into rebel-held Idlib province in north west killing hundreds of civilians and displacing hundreds of thousands raising risk that Turkey responds with force against govt troops in coming weeks; in north east and east fighting between Turkey and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) subsided, but Islamic State (ISIS) upped operations against SDF and govt forces. In north west, govt and Russian forces continued aerial bombardments in Idlib province throughout month, notably govt bombardment on Idlib city 15 Jan killed nineteen civilians. Govt offensive in area south of Maarat al Numan 16 Jan left at least 26 rebel fighters and 29 govt soldiers dead; govt 28 Jan regained control of town. Russian airstrikes 21 Jan killed over 40 civilians in rural Idlib province. State media 22 Jan claimed rebel shelling of western neighbourhoods of Aleppo city killed three civilians. Turkish President Erdoğan 29 Jan criticised Russia for not abiding by its commitments under Sochi and Astana accords in Idlib. UN same day said violence in Idlib province had displaced nearly 390,000 in past two months. Amid rising number of displaced persons, Erdoğan 31 Jan expressed concern at new threats near Turkey’s border and said Turkey ready to take necessary steps including using military force in Syria. In north east, in Raqqa ISIS mid-Jan carried out first open attack against govt forces since 2017, killing one soldier. In east, ISIS 2 Jan claimed responsibility for attack on SDF checkpoint in Abu Hamam, Deir al-Zour province that killed nine SDF troops. Govt 14 Jan said ISIS attack in Badia region of Deir al-Zour killed four soldiers. Russian President Putin visited President Assad in Damascus 7 Jan to discuss military situation. UN Security Council 10 Jan voted to renew resolution 2165 mandating cross-border aid into Syria, reauthorising delivery through two crossings between Turkey and Syria (Bab al Salameh and Bab al Haweh crossings) for another twelve months, but discontinuing delivery through crossings at al-Ramtha (from Jordan) and Al Yarubiyah (from Iraq).
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.
The U.S. decision to leave troops in north-eastern Syria has bought the area time but not lasting stability. Washington should press its Kurdish YPG allies to loosen their PKK ties – lest Ankara intervene – and stop obstructing their autonomy talks with Damascus.
Escalation is likely going to continue [in Syria] as long as Turkey and Russia cannot agree on a new cease-fire.
Damascus never budged in its desire to regain 'every inch of Syria.' Idlib is no exception to that.
Despite their cooperation in several areas in Syria there are unfortunately many glaring communication issues between Ankara and Moscow.
[Moscow and Damascus'] idea is to strangle the areas [in Idlib] and empty them, before they advance.
L'EI constitue toujours une menace qui pourrait métastaser si les FDS voient leur attention et leurs ressources détournées [...] au profit d'une bataille défensive contre la Turquie.
[By deciding to withdraw its troops from North East Syria] the United States just threw away the last leverage it had.
On 12 January 2020, the Editorial Board of the Washington Post cited International Crisis Group's recommendation of pursuing a “Women and Children First” policy in repatriating Western ISIS affiliates – and warned about the risks to humanitarian values and security of failing to do so.
Originally published in Washington Post
Turkey’s ruling party sees recent battlefield and electoral gains as vindicating its hardline policies toward the PKK. But these same policies fuel the Kurdish grievances that keep the fighting going. Ankara would thus be wise to consider exploring ways of winding down the destructive conflict.