The “terrorist” label affixed to Idlib’s strongest rebel group undermines a crucial ceasefire and blocks potential paths to avert a military showdown. It also reflects a gap in Western policy. Creative ideas from Washington could help break the impasse and set a useful precedent.
Tensions continued in north east as fighting broke out between Kurdish-led and pro-govt forces; Islamic State (ISIS) continued deadly attacks. In north east, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and govt-affiliated troops 23 Jan clashed in Qamishli city in Hassakeh province, reportedly wounding two pro-govt fighters after they opened fire on Kurdish-controlled post. Prior to fighting, SDF 10 Jan arrested regime officers and soldiers in Qamishli and 14 Jan cut off supply lines to regime-forces in Qamishli and Hassakeh cities. Kurdish security forces 31 Jan reportedly opened fire on pro-govt demonstrators protesting siege in Hassakeh, killing one and injuring four. Turkey blamed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) for 2 Jan vehicle-borne IED attack in Ras al-Ayn city near Turkish border, which killed two children, and for 30 Jan car bomb that killed at least five in Afrin town, Aleppo province. IEDs 2 and 31 Jan also killed at least 13 civilians in Aleppo province. In north west, Russia continued airstrikes targeting southern countryside of Idlib, Hama and Latakia provinces. Turkey 12 Jan evacuated last observation points in regime-controlled territory while mid-month further strengthened positions in southern Idlib. Also in north west, jihadist group Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade 17 Jan claimed previous day attack that reportedly injured three Turkish troops in Aleppo province. Meanwhile, ISIS continued attacks in centre and east: suspected ISIS attack 3 Jan reportedly killed at least nine govt troops in Hama province and attack in Deir Ez-Zor province 11 Jan killed at least eight pro-govt forces; in retaliation, Russia 17-19 Jan conducted 40 airstrikes targeting ISIS-linked targets in Aleppo, Hama and Raqqa provinces. In south, govt forces 11 Jan reportedly threatened to restore security control over western part of Daraa province unless reconciled former rebels cleared area of ISIS and al-Qaeda-backed cells. In Daraa, unknown assailants launched targeted killings of civil servants and IED attacks against former rebels continued. Suspected Israeli air raids 6 Jan reportedly struck Iran-linked targets in south and southern outskirts of capital Damascus, killing at least three; 13 Jan hit Iran-linked targets in Deir Ez-Zor province, killing dozens of pro-govt forces.
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.
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.
With the US Caesar Act coming into force, doing business with Syria will become even more difficult and risky.
What appears to be an unprecedented government-sanctioned Russian media campaign against Bashar al-Assad may reflect frustration in Moscow over Assad's obstinacy at a time when Syria is a lesser priority.
[...] this is an effort to minimize offending Moscow that reflects the fact that U.N. officials believe that continued cooperation with Russia is key to the future of humanitarian operations in Syria.
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.
Disease has long been a daily concern at al-Hol, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria for families of ISIS militants, but now each death raises anxiety about COVID-19. With repatriations on hold, the UN and other international bodies must step up medical and humanitarian aid.