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.
Regime and Russian forces intensified airstrikes and ground offensive in north west taking ground from rebels. In north west, regime forces 1 Dec launched ground assault to retake territory they lost previous month. Regime and Russian airstrikes continued to target rebel-held areas in Idlib; Russian airstrikes and barrel bombs 8 Dec killed 21 civilians. Regime and Russian airstrikes on villages in Maarat al-Numan district, Idlib province 17 Dec killed 24 civilians. State news 22 Dec reported regime forces had retaken around twenty villages in Maarat al-Numan district. UN 27 Dec said regime offensive had displaced over 235,000 civilians in Dec. In north east, Turkey 8 Dec struck deal with Russia to connect areas under control of Turkish-backed Syrian forces to regime-controlled power plant and to withdraw Turkish-backed Syrian National Army and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces from M4 highway. Insecurity persisted in areas under control of Turkish-backed forces; car bombing in Al-Mabrukah in Hasakah province 18 Dec killed five civilians, and landmine at Tel Abyad border crossing in Raqqa province same day killed four. Car bombing 23 Dec killed eight in Turkish-controlled village of Suluk near Tel Abyad. Airstrikes of unknown origin 7 and 25 Dec killed ten pro-Iranian fighters in Deir al-Zour province in east; Lebanese Shia group Hizbollah blamed Israel for 25 Dec attack. Delegates from Russia, Turkey and Iran 10 Dec met in Kazakhstan for 14th round of talks on Syria, with focus on how UN-sponsored Constitutional Committee can overcome impasse in drafting new constitution; talks made no progress. U.S. Congress 17 Dec passed Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act enabling U.S. govt to sanction any person or entity engaging in economic activity with Syrian regime.
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.
The Syrian regime vows to reconquer Idlib, the north-western zone hosting its hardest-core remaining jihadist opposition. But an all-out offensive would be calamitous. Turkey and Russia should recommit to their “de-escalation” deal for Idlib, bolstering it with measures that buy time for a lasting solution.
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.
The debate about [whether] US should distance itself from the [Mideast] region and reduce its military footprint is important but somewhat beside the point. The more consequential question is what kind of Middle East the United States will remain engaged in or disengaged from.
Even if efforts to create a 'buffer zone' [in Northern Syria] succeed, the underlying source of tension will remain and with it, the potential for a Turkish military response to Ankara's perceived YPG threat.
The world apparently has long since tired of the war, and resigned itself to frozen conflict, with a nationwide cease-fire as the best possible scenario.
This ceasefire [in Idlib] may just be an operational pause for Damascus and Moscow to consolidate their territorial gains and prepare for the next phase of their offensive.
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.
Turkey’s incursion into north-eastern Syria threatens to reduce a region of relative calm to hotly contested terrain: it could meet determined resistance, cause mass displacement and revive ISIS. Washington should urgently press Ankara to stop the offensive before it advances much further.
Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib.
Originally published in Valdai