The Syrian regime’s deliberate but devastating campaign to retake Idlib has picked up in intensity, threatening death and displacement at levels unseen in Syria’s conflict, terrible as it has been to date. Damascus and its Russian backers must conclude an immediate ceasefire with rebel forces.
Deadly fighting escalated in Idlib province in north west between Russian-backed regime forces on one side and rebels and Turkish troops on other; political wing of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) held talks with govt and in south Israeli airstrikes killed over twenty govt troops and members of pro-Iranian militias. In north west, regime forces’ artillery fire and Russian airstrikes killed total of eighteen Turkish soldiers and three Turkish civilian contractors early Feb; in retaliatory strikes, Turkish forces killed thirteen Syrian soldiers. Regime forces 7 Feb captured strategic town of Saraqib, bypassing and encircling four Turkish military observation posts; rebel forces recaptured town 26 Feb. Turkish President Erdoğan 10 Feb gave Syrian regime until end of Feb to withdraw behind Turkish observation posts and in later statements threatened direct military action. Turkish-backed rebels 20 Feb launched offensive along strategic M4 highway. Suspected regime airstrike 27 Feb killed 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib province; Turkey said its retaliatory strikes next day killed over 300 regime soldiers. Regime and Russian airstrikes targeting schools and nurseries 25 Feb killed 21 civilians in Idlib city and surrounding area. NGO Syrian Network for Human Rights said 276 civilians killed in Syria in Feb. In north east, having reached agreement with SDF, coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties Kurdish National Council (KNC) 2 Feb announced that reopening of its offices in SDF-held territory. Syrian Democratic Council, SDF’s political wing, 9 Feb confirmed its delegation had travelled to capital Damascus to begin Russian-mediated talks with regime centred on formation of autonomous local administrations in Kurdish-majority areas in north east. In south, Israeli airstrikes 6 Feb reportedly killed over twenty govt soldiers and pro-Iranian militants near Damascus. Israeli airstrikes in Damascus area 23 Feb killed four pro-Iranian fighters and two members of Palestinian group Islamic Jihad.
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.
As the Syrian economy continues to deteriorate and violence escalates, fewer and fewer families will be able to access even the nominally available public care.
[The Syrian civilian population] think it’s suicidal to move toward the regime, or at best, it’s unknown.
These [Turkish and Russian] patrols are meant to be politically symbolic, demonstrating both countries’ ability to cut through rebel-controlled Idlib and secure the highway.
Getting out [of Idlib] altogether, allowing the refugees to come into Turkey and letting Assad take that space is not an idea that’s going to resonate with Turkish society.
Russia can help the Syrian regime crush Idlib if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory. If it hopes to spare itself that cost it needs to strike a new agreement to which HTS is a counterparty.
Escalation is likely going to continue [in Syria] as long as Turkey and Russia cannot agree on a new cease-fire.
A deadly attack on Turkish forces in Syria has brought Idlib’s crisis to a dangerous crossroads. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Turkey, Syria and Russia experts explain what happened and what’s at stake.
1,450 ISIS-affiliated European nationals are being held in camps in Syria, where they suffer from squalor and violence. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU member states to take responsibility for their nationals and bring them home – starting with children and women.
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