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.
Fighting intensified in north west between rebels and Russian-backed govt forces, in north east fragile ceasefire between Turkey and Kurdish-led forces held as Russia increased its presence there, and Israel launched retaliatory strikes against Syrian and Iranian targets in south. In north west, Russian and govt forces continued offensive in rebel-held parts of Idlib province killing over 50 civilians; govt airstrike on displaced persons’ camp in Qah 20 Nov killed at least fifteen civilians. Fighting between Russian-backed govt forces and rebels in south east Idlib province 30 Nov left almost 100 combatants dead from both sides in most intense fighting since Aug ceasefire agreement. Protests erupted in Idlib 2 Nov over rise in fuel prices and electricity shortages; protesters also demonstrated against ties between region’s self-proclaimed National Salvation Govt and jihadist group Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham. In north east, following incursion in Oct, Turkey limited its military operation against Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) and carried out joint patrols with Russian forces in safe zone agreed with Russia in Oct. Russia increased its military presence in north east, 18 Nov claimed to have taken control of former U.S. military base near Sarrin, north east of Aleppo following U.S. withdrawal in Oct. Syrian govt forces exchanged artillery fire with Turkey’s Syrian proxies near Tel Abyad in safe zone and 19 Nov carried out first joint patrol with Russian troops between Tel Tamer and Abu Rasin in Hasakah governorate. Car bombing 26 Nov killed dozens in Turkish-controlled Tel Halaf near Ras al-Ayn; Turkey blamed YPG. In east, U.S. forces 22 Nov carried out first major operation against ISIS in Deir al-Zour province since 7 Oct withdrawal from north east. Israel night of 17-18 Nov struck Iran-backed convoy near Palmyra and Iranian official in Hama; 19 Nov intercepted four rockets suspected Iranian-backed forces launched from Syria into Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. In retaliation, Israel next day struck over twenty Syrian and Iranian targets reportedly killing at least 23.
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.
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