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Don’t sacrifice Turkey to save Syria
Don’t sacrifice Turkey to save Syria
The Fragility of Northern Syria
The Fragility of Northern Syria
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Don’t sacrifice Turkey to save Syria

Originally published in The Guardian

Murderous suicide bombings. A deadly upsurge of ethno-sectarian violence spilling over from Syria. A country whose friendship with the US and EU is increasingly fragile, and is now at daggers drawn with a historic enemy, Russia.
With another 28 people killed in the 17 February attack on Turkish soldiers in Ankara, there seems no end to Turkey’s misfortunes. Even scarier scenarios doing the rounds in the Turkish capital include talk of a 14th Russo-Turkish war, unprecedented polarisation of Turkish society and a continuation of the wave of Syrian refugees.
The time has come to focus on Turkey which, for all its troubles, remains an anchor of stability for many of today’s stressed geopolitical fault lines – between Russia and the west, the Middle East and Europe, the existing world order and a violent extremist alternative.
Some parts of Turkey’s many-fronted crisis are of its leadership’s own making. But a major intervention by Turkey’s friends is needed to reverse the vicious cycle dragging it down, whether through high-level joint visits, financial support for refugees or action on the ground. On the western side, at least, Turkey, the US and Europe’s true interests lie where they always really have done: in an enduring, interdependent and stable partnership.

Nothing has altered the connections binding US, European and Turkish interests together: 80 million people on Europe’s south-eastern flank in what is historically one of the most democratic, secular-minded and economically advanced of the 57 countries of the Muslim world.

And its troubles must be seen in context. Turkey’s economy still boasts vibrant manufacturing tigers. Istanbul airport bustles with the far-reaching success of Turkish Airlines, Europe’s best airline for five years in a row. Recent history teaches that the Turkish state is most unlikely to crumple or abandon any of its territory to any other force.

Turkey has been a full member of Nato since 1952, even if Ankara and its allies have not always seen eye to eye. Western decisions to invade Iraq in 2003 or bomb Libya in 2011 flew in the face of Ankara’s counsel, the wisdom of which is now evident. As a neighbour of Syria, Turkey was rash to turn so irrevocably against Bashar al-Assad. But history may yet judge just as harshly the west’s decision to ignore Ankara and not take short, sharp, early action in Syria. 

A dangerous turning point is now evident in northern Syria, where Turkey faces challenges from Kurdish fighters, Russia and Iran. Wrong moves by both Turkey and the US here are already cracking open the Nato bedrock of Turkey’s relationship with the west. US and European leaders have rushed into a policy that posits Islamic State as the principal threat that must be countered at all costs.
This diagnosis is incorrect. Isis’s brutal antics are less a cause than a dreadful symptom of previous bad policies and a power vacuum at the heart of the Middle East. Far more people have been killed by the wanton bombings of the Syrian government of Assad than by Isis.
Viewing everything through the lens of Isis falls into the propaganda trap that it has set. Isis-first tactics risk losing the much greater prize, a stable, prosperous Turkey. Any sustainable Syria strategy must go the extra mile to integrate the Turkish dimension. 
Here Turkey and the west must overcome their friction over the Syrian Kurds. In the name of combating Isis, the US is cooperating intimately with the Syrian Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG). Yet the YPG is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has fought a 31-year-old insurgency against Turkey, and which the US and the EU call a terrorist organisation.
Western governments must get their own policies in tune with one another. They should hold Turkey strictly to international standards in its handling of just governance, including Kurdish rights, and go the extra mile to persuade Turkey to return to peace talks with the PKK that were cut off last year. But they must also recognise that the PKK played a big role in sabotaging the ceasefire, its ambitions pumped up by the feeling that western support in Syria would carry over to new gains in Turkey.
Turkey believes Russia and Iran are supporting the PKK precisely because it sees the organisation as a means of tripping the country up, opportunistically using the Syria crisis to weaken Turkey’s links to the west and, ideally, to create a crisis in Nato. Russian warplanes are constantly flying up close to Turkey’s Syrian border, trying to light the legendarily short fuse of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan now needs to engage constructively with his western partners, on whose goodwill Turkey’s strategic security relies. He should restart peace efforts with the PKK and reach a deal in direct talks with the YPG that would ensure Turkish border security and end Turkish army shelling into Syria.
For its part, the west should return to the proper strategic long view: warning the PKK that destabilising Turkey is unacceptable; urging a return to the peace process; helping Turkey in its efforts to de-escalate with Russia; and building up Turkey-EU relations on a broad front.
Nobody knows what the future holds in terms of Turkish membership of the EU. The end goal has been vague ever since the Ankara agreement began an integration process in 1963, and multiple crises in the EU means there is no appetite for further enlargement today. But progress in the negotiations gives Turkey a credible reform agenda to work towards, improving life and governance in the country.
Europe, struggling with and torn over the refugee crisis, has offered €3bn to Turkey in a desperate, long-overdue attempt to control refugee flows. But the price tag for Europe will be immeasurably higher if Middle Eastern predicament reaches further into Turkey, not just in extra costs but, as in the 1990s, perhaps also in Turkish Kurd refugee numbers as well.
European leaders – whose countries are far richer and safer than Turkey – should take a high-minded lead. Among a newly engaged class of European officials working on Turkey, there is already little of the old subtext that it is a faraway buffer, or that Brussels will be able to dictate outcomes in the country. Their Turkish official counterparts are often eager for avenues to restore the old cooperation.
The Syrian war is a cumulative international tragedy. In the current geopolitical storms, Turkey and the west are clearly in the same boat.

This article first appeared in The Guardian.

The Fragility of Northern Syria

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.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 – Spring Edition.

With global attention focused on fighting a deadly pandemic, the security situation in northern Syria remains fragile and could break down at any time. In the north east, erratic U.S. decision-making in 2019 enabled a Turkish incursion that in turn put local anti-ISIS efforts in jeopardy. The arrival of COVID-19 is further threatening the precarious status quo. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of Kurdish, Arab and Syriac militias under the leadership of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), exercises tenuous control over the area. Between leading operations to smash ISIS cells, holding off pro-Turkish forces and guarding prisons housing ISIS fighters, it is already stretched thin. The SDF’s capacities may crumble if the pandemic hits the north east in full force. On 30 March, and again on 2 May, ISIS detainees overpowered guards and took over an entire floor of a prison compound in the provincial capital Hassakeh before SDF personnel were able to quell the uprising.

Idlib is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy.

In the north west, Idlib presents another conundrum. The last stronghold of Syrian rebels and jihadists, the province is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy. A Russian-backed regime offensive has squeezed the rebels and displaced hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians, many crowding at the Turkish border. Turkish-Russian ceasefires in Idlib have broken down time and again. The latest one, concluded in March, is holding thus far, but it bears all its predecessors’ flaws and is therefore also prone to erode. The spectre of COVID-19 makes a more permanent ceasefire in Idlib all the more urgent, since only concerted international action at a time of relative calm can contain the contagion. The offensive has all but destroyed Idlib’s health care sector, and an outbreak could prove disastrous.

European capitals have a strong interest in helping mitigate Syria’s humanitarian disaster, while keeping ISIS at bay. As such, the EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Contribute additional funding and protection for SDF detention centres holding foreign fighters. The EU and member states should also offer the SDF technical and financial assistance to enhance its capacity to prosecute Syrian ISIS members in its custody or under its control. In addition, they should aid SDF efforts to reintegrate released and former ISIS members into their communities in Syria.
  • Revitalise its approach to stabilising the north east by supporting civilian-military governance structures in which local Arab authorities play a central role in predominantly Arab areas. Establishing such structures would require giving the SDF incentives to devolve authority to local governing bodies, including their security services, to avoid an anti-SDF and anti-Kurdish backlash from which ISIS would benefit.
  • Maintain diplomatic pressure on the SDF and Turkey to commit to a humanitarian truce in north-eastern Syria. While the SDF has publicly endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in the face of the pandemic, there has been intermittent fighting between the SDF and Turkey (and Turkish proxies) along the front lines, diverting resources from the campaign against ISIS and causing civilian casualties.
  • Continue humanitarian preparations in the event of a regime attack on Idlib and/or the full outbreak of COVID-19. Plan and build aid infrastructure; pre-position assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
  • Support the COVID-19 response in both the north east and north west, including by increasing humanitarian aid and delivering personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators.

The North East

In March, ISIS called on its members to take advantage of COVID-19’s spread to intensify their global war. While there have been no major security breakdowns in north-eastern Syria to date, sporadic incidents of violence raise concerns about the jihadist group’s remaining presence. ISIS has maintained a drumbeat of low-level attacks across the region, despite being geographically and organisationally fractured. It has shown a certain resilience, notwithstanding its territorial defeat and the loss of its top leadership. Its fighters have carried out roadside bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations targeting local Arab SDF elements, in particular. Its cells have also coalesced to set up checkpoints and extort money from traders crossing Syria’s eastern desert.

Such attacks aim to weaken the SDF and to terrorise the local population into non-cooperation with the authorities. Fear of ISIS retribution has harmed the SDF’s ability to gather intelligence necessary for effective counter-insurgency measures. Residents attribute the persistence of ISIS activities partly to lack of popular confidence in a sustained U.S. troop presence in eastern Syria. ISIS cells have also benefited from mistrust between locals and the SDF – exacerbated by the exclusion of local Arab leaders from decision-making – which gives the militants room to operate among the population. It remains unclear whether ISIS will be able to further reconstitute its local support at a time when the SDF’s focus is elsewhere.

The SDF’s reduced military capacity as a result of the Turkish offensive raises questions about whether it can keep guarding ISIS detainees. In an audio recording released in September 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exhorted his followers to free ISIS detainees and their families from prisons and camps. The group lately renewed this call, arguing that the coronavirus is diverting the attention of governments or groups holding them. On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted in a prison in Hassakeh city, wresting control of a whole floor from the facility’s guards. It took nearly a day for the SDF to regain the upper hand and determine that no prisoners had escaped. SDF authorities later explained that inmates had revolted partly because they feared contracting the illness in such cramped quarters. On 2 May, ISIS prisoners took control of another SDF-run detention facility in Hassakeh; the SDF and detainees negotiated an end to the standoff a day later.

Following these events, the SDF is rightly concerned that ISIS could raid its makeshift jails in conjunction with prisoner riots to enable mass escapes. This threat will become all the more serious if COVID-19 starts to spread rapidly and uncontrollably. The prospect that something similar could happen in al-Hol detention camp, which holds over 60,000 ISIS-related women and children and where tensions flared regularly between militant women and guards even before the pandemic outbreak, is extremely worrying. Renewed fighting between Turkey and the SDF on Syria’s northern border would only worsen these problems.

The North West

Backed by Russian airpower, the Syrian regime has pursued an incremental military strategy for reclaiming the rebel-held north west. Its campaign escalated in April 2019; by March 2020, it had left over a million Syrians displaced. Russian warplanes have compensated for the regime’s weaknesses in ground warfare, driving the human toll way up. The combined air and artillery attacks ravaged towns and villages, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the province’s northern reaches. At least 1,700 civilians were reportedly killed in these strikes. With over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) on its border with Syria, Turkey followed through on a threat to open its European frontiers, allowing migrants and refugees to pass into Greece, and thus sending the message that it would not shoulder a new refugee burden on its own.

Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire remains at great risk of falling apart.

On 5 March, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia agreed on a new cessation of hostilities in Idlib, establishing a “security corridor” extending 6km on each side of the M4 Aleppo-Latakia highway, an area under rebel control, to be patrolled jointly by Russian and Turkish soldiers. The agreement froze the conflict along the new front line, letting the regime hold onto many areas it had retaken in the latest offensive, and leaving civilians who fled the conflict with no prospect of returning to their towns and villages. Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire, like those that came before it, remains at great risk of falling apart.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The entirety of northern Syria remains vulnerable to renewed conflict. In the north east, the EU and its member states should continue to offer much needed support to the SDF to allow it to weather the crisis and remain an effective anti-ISIS force. Building on EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s call for an immediate and nationwide ceasefire across Syria, the EU and its member states should put diplomatic pressure on their Turkish allies and Kurdish partners to commit to a truce that could allow all parties to focus on fighting the pandemic. They should accompany this request with humanitarian aid to help the SDF respond to a coronavirus outbreak if and when it accelerates.

The EU will also need to do more to share the burden with Turkey in north-western Syria.

The EU is one of the largest humanitarian donors in the Middle East. Support for Syrian refugees in the region is one of the short-term priorities in the EU’s Team Europe program responding to COVID-19. On 30 March, it committed support to countries hosting Syrian refugees – Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – to help them fight the pandemic. While this step is welcome, they should equally make sure to provide assistance inside Syria, particularly in Idlib, including support directed toward health and education. The Brussels Conference scheduled for the end of June, “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, will be an opportunity to mobilise European and other donors to pledge further aid to civilians in Idlib, especially in light of the coronavirus threat. The EU and its member states could also offer direct support to grassroots organisations working in Idlib and encourage EU-funded organisations to focus their efforts on that area. While EU-Turkey relations are strained, Ankara and Brussels should use their renewed diplomatic engagement – triggered by the regime offensive – to preserve and strengthen the ceasefire in Idlib as an immediate priority. European states should continue to back Turkish efforts to maintain a ceasefire in Idlib, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. They should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria-related matters.