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The Laws of War: Under Siege or Gaining Ground?
The Laws of War: Under Siege or Gaining Ground?
Watch List 2018 – Second Update
Watch List 2018 – Second Update
Speech / Global

The Laws of War: Under Siege or Gaining Ground?

Speech by Louise Arbour, President & CEO of the International Crisis Group, on the occasion of the Kirby Lecture at the Australian National University, Canberra, 23 June 2011.

I am delighted to have been invited to deliver this lecture, named in honour of Michael Kirby, a great jurist, judge, humanitarian, human rights defender, friend, and, in the judicial parlance that we once shared, I could have said brother.[fn]I wish to thank Jon Shephard for his research assistance and insights in the preparation of this paper.Hide Footnote I am also particularly happy to be doing so in the presence of the distinguished Chancellor of The Australian National University, a great politician, policy guru, trail blazer, lawyer malgré lui, my friend Gareth Evans. The fact that I am here, connected to both of them, allows me to use my favourite word in the English language, a word that has no real French equivalent: serendipity.

My connection to Michael brings me back to our years on the bench, geographically far apart, but I like to think united by a shared vision of the law and the judicial function. Empowered by a judicial mandate anchored in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I lived in an era denounced by some as having encouraged the legalisation of politics, celebrated by others as having allowed the rule of law to truly flourish. Either way, where I come from, the law mattered.

My connection to Gareth reflects the latest chapter of my entry into the world of armed conflict. Not surprisingly, I came to it from a legal perspective, but under his influence I broadened my horizons to embrace the murkier waters of political analysis, particularly after I took over from him the direction of International Crisis Group. So it is today through this mostly political lens that I want to share with you a few observations on the relevance, or lack thereof, of the law of armed conflict. It is with no false modesty that I disclaim any sophisticated expertise in the current state of that body of law. What I once knew is dated, and after a few years away, I don’t even trust the skills I once had to figure it out. But I am interested not so much in the state of the law as in its role and impact in the prevention, management and resolution of armed conflict.

Allow me then to start with a recent statement by one who can claim to have some insight into the politics of it all. The laws of war are increasingly outdated, and threaten to “handcuff all states fighting terrorism”.[fn]‘PM Netanyahu addresses the Saban Forum’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 15 November 2009.Hide Footnote  So claimed Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu shortly after the publication of the Goldstone Report, which sharply criticised Israel for alleged violations of humanitarian law. Netanyahu is not alone in his criticism. In May of this year, Sri Lanka’s representative to the UN told the Security Council that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to humanitarian law fails to take into account the changed nature of today’s conflicts and imposes unfair burdens on states struggling to rid themselves of terror and insurgency.[fn]Security Council meeting 6531, 10 May 2011, p. 31.Hide Footnote  This in the wake of the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s civil war, which saw an estimated 40,000 civilians killed, many by government forces, in just a few months.

Israel and Sri Lanka are far from being the only critics of humanitarian law. In recent years, a growing number of voices have questioned the contemporary applicability of the laws of war. Citing, amongst other things, the failure of terrorist and insurgent groups to abide by the Geneva and Hague Conventions, the increasingly unclear line between civilians and combatants and the use of what has been termed “lawfare” to challenge states’ military options, they have called for a radical rethink. Another group of critics has taken the opposite line: far from tying states’ hands, they argue, the lex specialis of humanitarian law paves the way for states to inflict huge civilian casualties with impunity. Moreover, they suggest, even those aspects of the law that could provide some protection regularly go unheeded, and violators go unpunished.

The debate has been largely fuelled and mediatised by the politics of the War on Terror. But it is also rooted in the renewed relevancy of a body of law that, until the mid 1990s, was largely unimplemented, invisible, and the preserve solely of normative discussions amongst specialists. The growth of international criminal law, first in the launch of the ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, then in the daring moves of national magistrates operating under the framework of universal jurisdiction, and finally in the creation of the International Criminal Court, have made Milošević, Pinochet and Bashir if not household names, at least the recognisable faces of international crime. In my view, the recent criticisms mounted against the laws of war reflect less their inadequacy than their increased effectiveness. And, in addressing below the emerging concept of lawfare, I will further suggest that implementation comes as much from compliance as from coercion, and that this is as it should be.

There are undoubtedly gaps and ambiguities in humanitarian law which need to be addressed; this much even the International Committee of the Red Cross has recognised. But the Geneva Conventions remains sound, and should not be too quickly dismissed. Critics allege that international law fails to take into account many issues pertinent to today’s conflicts; in fact, however, many of these issues are expressly addressed – just not in the way critics would like.

Current criticisms of the laws of war come in the context of significant changes in the conduct of conflict. Most humanitarian law was designed at a time when armed conflict usually meant a declared war between two or more states with identified territories and armed forces; today, such conflict is the exception, rather than the rule. Today’s conflicts are usually internal, and often involve one or more amorphous non-state actors. These changes have provoked a number of intersecting and cross-cutting criticisms, which go both to the scope and the substance of humanitarian law. The common thread of these is that the laws of war, at least as currently constituted, are no longer valid. I will attempt to address, very summarily, the core criticisms. They relate, largely, to the definition of armed conflict, the fundamental principles of distinction and proportionality, the issue of lawfare and, to a lesser extent, the notion of reciprocity.

Armed Conflict

International humanitarian law is a specialised body of rules and principles activated only when there is an armed conflict. When it does apply, it imposes a framework that is at the same time both more permissive for, and, some suggest, more constraining on state action. I think it is important to first test this premise. In the current context, the debate is essentially focussed on the question of protection of civilians. The body of law we are interested in offers, essentially, a quid pro quo: it requires the protection of civilians as an exception to a granted right to kill. In contrast, domestic criminal law, if compliant with international human rights standards, would prohibit extra judicial executions and restrict the right of law enforcement officers to kill only in self-defence, or in the reasonable use of force in performing an arrest, for instance.

Simply put, the law of armed conflict contains exceptions to the right to kill, while domestic law enforcement contains exceptions to the right to life. However, both are governed by non-excluded laws of general application, such as the prohibition of genocide or the absolute prohibition of torture. This point is important because the arguments about the special needs of the war on terror often seem to assume that it can only operate in a legal black hole; it is not only IHL that is seen as too constraining, but also a large part of international human rights law, including the Torture Convention and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, for example, which imposes a special regime for the treatment of child soldiers, not to mention a good part of domestic criminal law.

With that understood, the question still arises as to when there is an armed conflict sufficient to activate the laws of war. For international armed conflicts, the situation is relatively clear. The issue is more complex, however, in relation to non-international – or, more accurately, non-interstate – armed conflict. Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, which governs such conflicts, has a high threshold for application: parties must have, inter alia, territorial control, formal organisation and responsible command.[fn]Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Article 1(1).Hide Footnote  Even Common Article 3 to the four Geneva Conventions, which is designed to apply as broadly as possible, requires, according to the influential Pictet Commentary, elements of formal structure and territorial control. Perhaps the most useful guidance on this issue is found in the ICTY’s Tadić decision, in which it suggested that the two operative conditions for determining the existence of an armed conflict are (i) the intensity of the conflict and (ii) the organisation of the parties.[fn]Tadić jurisdiction decision, ICTY Case No. IT-94-1-T, 1995, paragraph 70.Hide Footnote  But even this leaves much room for dispute.

Ultimately, no overarching determination as to whether the laws of war should apply to fights against rebels, terrorists or insurgents will ever be possible: a case-by-case approach will always be necessary. Certain episodes in the ‘war on terror’, for example, might reach the level of armed conflict, as might the repression of new illegal armed groups in Columbia or the military action undertaken by the government of Mexico against organised criminal gangs, despite the warning in the Tadić decision that “banditry, unorganised and short-lived insurrections, or terrorist activities … are not subject to international humanitarian law”.[fn]Tadić trial judgment, ICTY Case No. IT-94-1-T, 1997, paragraph 562.Hide Footnote

One must be wary of calls for an expansion of the application of the laws of war. As indicated before, the rules applicable during armed conflicts are far more permissive than those applicable during times of peace – some stringent human rights standards are displaced by the far less strict provisions of humanitarian law.

The laws of war are a compromise, designed to offer a minimum level of protection to non-combatants, and to combatants who have laid down their arms, in terrible circumstances. The price for the protections offered is the recognition of a circumscribed right for states to kill, to wound, to imprison without trial and so on. To extend this waiver to all situations where violence is used would be to distort both the spirit and the letter of the law. On the other hand, when a true situation of armed conflict exists, as it clearly did in the last few months of the battle between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE in early 2009, to characterise it instead as an internal campaign against terror in an attempt to escape the requirements of distinction and proportionality in the law of armed conflict is, at its core, a call for lawlessness.

Regardless of the justification for war in the first place (jus ad bellum), the laws of war (jus in bello) require that states respect the rights of enemy combatants, limit the damage inflicted by their forces and take steps to preserve the lives of civilians, even as their opponents flout those same rules to gain a military advantage. This lack of reciprocity, in particular, is often advanced as an argument for rejecting the applicability of this body of law. This argument must be rejected. Non-state actors are bound by legal rules, whether under domestic law or, arguably, under international customary law. And humanitarian obligations undertaken by states by treaty are not dependent on reciprocity, as they would otherwise be eviscerated. If one violates legal obligations, the answer is in the enforcement of the law – through personal criminal responsibility for example – not in the lifting of all rules for all sides. I will come back to this idea under my discussion of the concept of “lawfare”.

At the heart of current criticisms lies the issue of civilian protection, governed by the principles of distinction and proportionality. In modern conflicts, critics argue, these principles are simply untenable.

Let me now turn briefly to these two legal requirements.


Essentially, the law permits belligerents to attack each other, but not civilians. Article 51 of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions states that “ … the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack … ” The rule also applies to non-international armed-conflicts, by virtue of Article 13(2) of the Second Additional Protocol. Under the terms of the Protocols, civilians are those persons who are not members of State armed forces or of organised armed groups belonging to a party to an armed conflict. Such civilians are protected against direct attack unless and until they “directly participate” in hostilities. The issue becomes even more complex under the principle of proportionality which expands the protection of civilians beyond the prohibition against direct attacks, as we will see below.

Detractors argue that the line between civilians and combatants is increasingly blurred, as civilians lend their support to insurgents and rebels on the one hand, whilst states make increasing use of civilian and military contractors on the other.[fn]See, for example, Gross, M, Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Blackmail and Assassination in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict (CUP, 2009: Cambridge), Ch. VII.Hide Footnote  The formulaic approach of the Geneva Conventions – which envisages a clear distinction between members of standing armies or militias and civilians – is, they argue, anachronistic and confusing. Today’s conflicts involve a spectrum of actors from ‘civilians’ to ‘combatants’, by way of terrorists, insurgents, political sympathisers, supporters and private contractors. This complexity means that it is increasingly difficult for parties to conflict to determine who may, or may not, be legitimately targeted.

In particular, tactics adopted by guerrilla and terrorist groups – using human shields, dressing as civilians, blending into the general population – have driven some states to claim that the principle of distinction unfairly benefits non-state groups. As a result, some have sought to expand the category of legitimate targets to include civilians even when not directly participating in hostilities. During the 2009 Gaza War, for example, an IDF spokesman declared that “[o]ur definition is that anyone who is involved with terrorism within Hamas is a valid target,” a clear departure from the current standard based on direct participation on hostilities.[fn]‘Gaza conflict: Who is a civilian?’, BBC, 5 January 2009.Hide Footnote

Criticism of the current system undoubtedly carries some weight. The approach to determining rights and obligations under Convention law places too much weight on considerations of status and group membership, and not enough on a functional test focussing on the activities of the individuals or groups involved. The formal requirements for combatant status laid out in Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention – which include openly bearing arms and wearing a uniform – are simply no longer appropriate to today’s conflicts. But this does not justify abandoning the principle of distinction.

The law recognises that anyone who is directly participating in hostilities is a legitimate target for attack, regardless of their broader status. The ICRC has recently produced guidance on this issue, which holds that an individual is so participating whenever their actions are “likely to adversely affect … military operations”, where there is a direct causal link between their actions and the resulting harm, and where the harm is intentional.[fn]Nils Melzer, Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities Under International Humanitarian Law (ICRC, 2009: Geneva), p. 16.Hide Footnote  As a result, insurgents and terrorists are not protected as civilians when they are preparing for, carrying out, or returning from attacks. The fact that such actors recover their protection as civilians when they are no longer participating in hostilities does not mean that action cannot be taken against them through usual law enforcement methods.

Undoubtedly, debate will continue as to who really warrants protection as a civilian. This is very welcome: discussion and argument are the best ways to develop our understanding of the law. Guidance from NGOs, academics and international tribunals will help to develop and refine our understanding over time. But the fundamental principle of distinction remains valid. The current formulation does allow for the targeting of ‘civilian combatants’ when they are engaged in hostilities. To expand humanitarian law to allow the targeting of those civilians not directly involved in hostilities would be a dangerous step, and would entirely undermine the rationale of civilian protection.

I should add, in passing, that the expression “innocent” civilians confuses the debate. There is no requirement of innocence in the determination of status or function. But the use of the expression is revealing. When fighting rebels or insurgents, for example, it is very tempting for states to expand their view of the enemy to not only enemy combatants but also to political sympathisers or passive supporters or even, ultimately, to all members of the community that the combatants purport to represent. It is in that sense that the state would not consider these civilians “innocent” civilians, and would therefore prefer that they be denied protection.


Proportionality is the second vexing question in the law of modern internal armed conflict. Proportionality has two distinct aspects. The first belongs to the jus ad bellum. It requires that even when acting in self-defence, a state should use a measured, proportionate military response. It is the second aspect that concerns us, as it relates to the conduct of hostilities (jus in bello). Under Article 51 of the First Additional Protocol, an otherwise legitimate target may not be attacked where harm to civilians would be “excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” Whilst no equivalent provision exists for non-international armed conflicts, relevant authorities all hold that the principle nonetheless applies, as it forms part of customary law.

There is great scope for argument as to what constitutes an “excessive” number of civilian casualties in any given situation. On the one hand, one can argue that the standard is purely a proportional one: civilian casualties could be, theoretically, unlimited, provided that the military advantage was suitably important. Sir Christopher Greenwood, for example, argues that

“the crucial question is whether other weapons or methods of warfare available at the time would have achieved the same military goal as effectively while causing less suffering or injury.”[fn]Greenwood, C, Command and the Laws of Armed Conflict (SCSI, 1993: Camberley), p. 24.Hide Footnote

On the other hand, the reference to “excessive” casualties might be taken to impose an absolute limit, regardless of the value of the military target. This is the view taken by Pictet Commentary, which holds that “incidental losses and damages should never be extensive.”[fn]ICRC Commentary to the Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, p. 626.Hide Footnote  Both of these approaches have some merit, and discussion as to the correct standard will long continue.

A troubling trend in recent years, however, has been the proliferation of more extreme views regarding the requirement of proportionality. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that any sort of proportionality is overly restrictive and should be done away with. In the aftermath of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, Israeli former general and current National Security Adviser Yaa’kov Amidror proclaimed that

“[n]ow those around Israel understand that Israel has certain red lines and that if these lines are crossed, Israel’s retaliation will be intentionally disproportionate. As a small country, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of reacting proportionally.”[fn]Amidror, Y, ‘Lebanon II – the Fallout’, Jerusalem Post, 17 January 2007.Hide Footnote

The defeat of the LTTE in Sri Lanka – with its extraordinarily high civilian cost – is perhaps the most appalling example of what happens when states abandon proportionality. The killing of 40,000 civilians in the last few months of the Sri Lankan conflict shows what can happen when all thoughts of proportionality are abandoned. Whatever definition of “excessive” one adopts, it is beyond question that slaughter on this scale, inflicted through the indiscriminate shelling of supposed safe zones, the targeting of hospitals and the post defeat execution of prisoners, is out of all proportion to any potential military gain. And yet the Sri Lankan approach is touted by some as the future of anti-rebel operations. Troublingly, Sri Lanka hosted a conference at the start of this month entitled “Defeating Terrorism – the Sri Lankan Experience”, at which the Minister of External Affairs claimed that “the entire body of international law must be revisited,” presumably to be more favourable to the Sri Lankan approach to conflict.[fn]‘Sri Lanka seeks new international laws to fight terrorism’, Reuters, 31 May 2011.Hide Footnote

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that the idea of “collateral damage” actually legitimises civilian deaths, and allows parties to conflict to slaughter civilians with impunity. Marc Herold writes:

“civilian casualties are not accidents or mistakes. They result from careful calculation by … commanders and military attorneys who decide upon the benefits of an air strike versus the costs in innocent civilian lives lost.”[fn]Herold, M, ‘Truth as Collateral Damage’, Guardian, 22 October 2008.Hide Footnote

The implication is that, by making allowances for civilian deaths, humanitarian law allows states to be lax in their targeting decisions. Herold and others therefore suggest that the standard should become far stricter, closer to the human rights standard of the inviolability of life. This view has its own difficulties: calls for a far stricter standard are unrealistic, and risk alienating states and fostering further resistance to the entire humanitarian regime.

Debate as to what humanitarian law truly requires in this regard will undoubtedly continue. Like all jurisprudential norms, clearer standards will evolve on a case-by-case basis. Ideas of proportionality, excessiveness, reasonableness, fairness, forseeability, recklessness, negligence, actual or constructive knowledge and the like are not foreign to other areas of legal thinking. They are applied daily in courtrooms as well as in the day-to-day management of human affairs. They are perfectly suitable standards by which a proper balance can be achieved between military and humanitarian imperatives. As with many other aspects of humanitarian law, the development of jurisprudence and other guidance will provide greater clarity over time.


A final issue relates to the recent growth in so-called ‘lawfare’. The term has been used, over the last decade or so, to mean the use or abuse of the laws of war as a military tool. In short, it means “the use of law as a weapon of war”.[fn]Dunlap, C, ‘Law and Military Interventions: Preserving Humanitarian Values in 21st Century Conflicts, Working Paper (Boston: Harvard Kennedy School, 2001), p. 5.Hide Footnote  This can manifest itself in two ways: either through threatening the prosecution of senior figures allegedly involved in violations – U.S. and Israeli officials have most often been targeted in this way – or by highlighting abuses in the court of public opinion. In that sense it is akin to propaganda as a military tool, or as others might put it, a form of ‘hearts and minds’ initiative.

Lawfare is, in and of itself, neither good nor bad. If violations have been committed, then it is both right and proper that they should be exposed and that attempts be made to address them, through whatever forum is available. If they have not, the law provides a means by which to rebut the accusations. When they have acted in accordance with the law, states should not be afraid to justify their actions. Of course, lawfare can have a negative impact. Spurious or outright false claims threaten to bring the entire concept of humanitarian law into disrepute, and can create the erroneous perception that it is the law itself – and not its deliberate misapplication – which is at fault. But crying “lawfare!” in an attempt to discredit those who make accusations creates the appearance that the accused cannot justify their actions, and simply compounds the negative impac

The emergence of this concept of lawfare is reminiscent, for me, of the claims of legalisation of politics and the denunciation of judicial activism that were prevalent in the early days of my judicial career, and which will be familiar to Michael Kirby. The resistance to constitutionalism and implementation of fundamental legal norms, particularly in the field of human rights, expressed itself in attacks against the legal and judicial system itself, just as the claims of obsolescence of the laws of war mask the discomfort with its more robust recent implementation. Yet the reality is that international humanitarian law today reflects the best of international law, and of law generally, in that it fosters increased compliance with a minimum of coercion. The relevance, and the potency, of the law of armed conflict, was best expressed by Charles J Dunlap Jr, Deputy Judge Advocate General, Headquarters US Air force who said, in a 2009 article:

“If anyone doubts the role of law in 21st century conflicts, one need only pose the following questions: what was the US military’s most serious setback since 9/11? Few knowledgeable experts would say anything other than the detainee abuse scandal known as “Abu Ghraib”. That this strategic military disaster did not involve force of arms, but rather centred on illegalities, indicates how law has evolved to become a decisive element – and sometimes the decisive element – of contemporary conflicts.”[fn]Dunlap, C, ‘Lawfare: A Decisive Element of 21st-Century Conflicts?’, Joint Forces Quarterly 54 (2009), p. 34.Hide Footnote

Later in the same article, the author claims that lawfare “has emerged as the principal effects-based air defence methodology employed by America’s adversaries today”, referring in particular to the demonization of air strikes “through the manipulation of the civilian casualties” they can produce.[fn]Ibid., p. 36.Hide Footnote

Whilst we should always be wary, therefore, of attempts to manipulate and misuse the law, we should also embrace its potential to foster greater compliance.


This need for modernisation and clarification is not unique to the laws of war. It is a natural part of any legal system. It will come from greater public awareness, greater compliance and greater enforcement. Ultimately, however, any interpretation of the Geneva Conventions must take into account those Conventions’ prime objective: the protection of non-combatants.

The humanitarian objective of civilian protection has become so central to the management of armed conflict in the last decade that it has in fact become itself a casus belli. Resolution 1973 of the UN Security Council has authorised “all necessary measures”, including military action but excluding occupation, to protect civilians in Libya. Not only, therefore, must civilians be protected in war; they may also be protected by war.

With this in mind, any ‘re-interpretation’ of the laws of war that seeks to limit civilian protection seems absurd. Radical solutions – which might involve granting states more leeway when fighting terrorists, or making a distinction between aggressors and defenders so as to give greater scope of attacks to the “good side” – should not be considered. In fact, I suspect, calls for these sorts of revisions stem more from the desire of certain states to legitimise their recent violations of humanitarian law than from any real concern with bringing the law up to date.

Despite some progress in compliance and in enforcement, allegations of serious violations continue to surface regularly, and even the most shocking often remain unaddressed. Defiance knows no limits, a point perhaps best illustrated by Sri Lanka’s recent assertion that “ensuring zero civilian casualties was an overriding priority” in its conflict with the LTTE.[fn]‘Military conference to share methods of war’, BBC, 1 June 2011.Hide Footnote  But the momentum has already shifted against violators. The challenge now is to put in place a universal mechanism of enforcement. The reach of the International Criminal Court is expanding, but is unlikely to become universal any time soon. And its jurisdiction remains ex post facto, addressing only the most serious violations. Calls have been made for a universal monitoring body. The current push for investigations is always ad hoc, and not always successful.

As Charli Carpenter has pointed out, other international regimes have well-established observation mechanisms: the IAEA for non-proliferation, the WHO for international medical standards and the WTO for the rules of free trade. She concludes that,

“[w]ithout an independent monitoring mechanism capable of making informed, systematic, nonpartisan claims about what has happened on the ground, it is all too easy for countries to exploit the gray areas in humanitarian law.”[fn]Carpenter, C, ‘War crimes reporting after Goldstone’, Foreign Affairs, 9 May 2011.Hide Footnote

Developing such a mechanism could serve to provide empirical data on humanitarian abuses, to make it more difficult for states to brush off claims of abuses and provide the global public with a stronger basis for action.

In the end, if the laws of war are under siege, the siege has only served to highlight their continued relevance and the need for their stronger implementation. The reduction in the number of armed conflicts since the end of the cold war is in part a reflection of increased international involvement in the prevention of conflict, including through the work of organisations like International Crisis Group. The reduction of civilian casualties in armed conflict is due, in large part to the moral, political and operational impact of the law. And it’s gaining ground. 

Smoke rises above rebel-held areas of the city of Daraa during reported airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on July 5, 2018. AFP

Watch List 2018 – Second Update

Crisis Group’s second update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on seizing a chance for peace in Mali, avoiding escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, mitigating conflict in Syria’s peripheral regions, and helping Somalia overcome obstacles to reform. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.

Mali’s Elections Are an Opportunity to Reboot the Peace Process

Only days before Mali’s presidential election, large parts of the country remain wracked by violence. Jihadist insurgencies plague rural areas in the centre and north east. Predation by ethnic militias, often mobilised by local politicians and community leaders to fight jihadists and in some cases tacitly backed by the Malian authorities and the French military mission, Operation Barkhane, fuel animosity among communities. Clashes along the Niger-Mali border have claimed dozens of lives over the past few months.

Amid such volatility, the 29 July vote could reinvigorate efforts to quell violence in central and northern Mali, including by breathing new life in the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement that aimed to stabilise northern Mali after a 2012-2013 crisis that saw jihadists hold northern towns for almost a year. But if it provokes political turmoil in Bamako or aggravates insurgencies in rural areas in Mali’s centre or north, the election could not only provoke intensified violence but also spell the end of that accord.   

The European Union (EU) and its member states can take several steps to improve prospects for peace. Ahead of the elections, they should encourage the main contenders to pledge to pursue disputes peacefully and through the courts. To reinvigorate implementation of the peace deal, notably its provisions related to decentralisation in the north, they will have to press the next Malian president and the armed groups that signed the deal to set clear timelines for elections to regional assemblies. In central Mali, they should press Malian authorities to halt security forces’ abuses of the local population and hold accountable those responsible. They also should promote a shift from the Malian state’s overwhelmingly military-focused approach in the centre to one that includes efforts to address the political disputes underpinning unrest and reinforces policing and the provision of other basic services.

Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Election

For the most part, the government and main opposition parties have maintained a peaceful dialogue about preparations for the forthcoming presidential vote. But clashes between police and opposition protesters on 2 June in the capital Bamako show that tensions persist and could degenerate into violence.

Twenty-four candidates – including only one woman – will contest the presidency. In reality, however, the vote will pit President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta against opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, in a repeat of the 2013 presidential election. Other candidates, including former prime ministers and ministers, have little chance of winning. But in the event of a run-off, their support to either of the two main contenders could prove decisive.

The immediate problem is the security of the vote itself. Several districts in Mali’s north and centre, where state authorities are unable to deploy, might be too unsafe for balloting. In the north, armed groups that signed the 2015 peace deal are still negotiating the conditions under which they will facilitate the vote in areas under their control. This is especially true of the Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) coalition, which controls the northernmost town of Kidal and surrounding areas. Central Mali suffers general insecurity, with control over terrain murkier. The authorities have announced that voting would proceed regardless. But the inability of people to vote due to insecurity could throw into question the election’s legitimacy and credibility, especially given that one of Cissé’s supposed strongholds is in central Mali.

In this light, the EU and its members should:

  • Urge the main candidates to sign a pact committing to accept the outcome of a fair election or, if they wish to challenge results, to do so peacefully and through the court system; and
  • Encourage whoever wins the presidency to focus on addressing grievances common to much of Malian society, especially the lack of job opportunities, the poor functioning of the state services and rising concerns about intercommunal violence in the countryside; without this, it is likely that an increasing number of Malians will start to believe that violent protests rather than elections can deliver change.

Reviving the Peace Process

The Bamako peace agreement, and notably its main provisions on the devolution of power and economic development in the north, as well as the demobilisation of the armed groups that signed the deal, needs a reboot. Algeria, which negotiated the deal, appears to have lost appetite in pushing forward its implementation. None of the other guarantors, whether the African Union, UN or EU, has stepped up. The Malian signatory parties all dislike the deal and blame each other for its slow implementation.

The [Bamako] agreement’s impact on the ground remains limited.

As a result, the agreement’s impact on the ground remains limited. Joint patrols, comprising the different armed groups that signed the Bamako deal, have started in Kidal and other northern towns, Timbuktu and Gao, which were foreshadowed in the deal. Threats of UN Security Council sanctions appear to have helped push signatory parties to be more conciliatory, including accepting the deployment of joint patrols in Kidal. But the armed groups’ participation remains tenuous; the patrols have yielded little improvement in security; and in Gao tensions among the different groups’ contingents in those patrols resulted in skirmishes.

Overall, international mediators and the signatories have spent too much energy on temporary security arrangements, such as the joint patrols, rather than on structural reform such as devolving power to regional assemblies and the north’s economic development. The Sahel Alliance, a platform to coordinate donor support for the Sahel region launched by France, Germany, the EU and other partners in 2017, could address part of the problem, by advancing the development provided for in the peace agreement. But to do so, the projects envisaged in the Sahel Alliance should be kept separate from Malian or international military operations, to avoid stirring up resistance to them among the north’s inhabitants, exposing aid workers or communities to retribution by jihadists and thus rendering projects less effective.

To help revive the peace process, the EU and its member states should:

  • Encourage the next Malian government, together with other signatories to the Bamako deal, to establish a precise calendar for implementation of its key steps, notably for elections to regional assemblies in the north and elsewhere; and
  • Reassess, as part of the Sahel Alliance, the linking of development projects too closely to military operations. In particular, military forces should not be involved in development work.  

Stabilising Central Mali

Perhaps most troubling are insurgencies in central Mali’s Mopti and Segou regions, which are more heavily populated and more integral to the country’s economy than the north. Thus far the government’s response – which it dubs a “special plan” – has been mostly military, attempting to rebuild barracks, redeploy troops and appoint military officials as local administrators. On his 11 February visit to Mopti, Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga stressed the need for political solutions and seemed to open the door to dialogue with all armed groups. But his speech has been followed by few concrete results. Repeated reports suggest extrajudicial killings by Malian security forces, fuelling anger at Bamako and the military.

Animosity among communities in central Mali is on the rise. Armed groups of the Dogon and Fulani (two ethnic groups in central Mali) have clashed repeatedly. Many Fulani suspect that Malian officials are backing the Dogon militias to counter jihadists, though such allegations are unproven. Similar dynamics are at play in Menaka region, where Tuaregs and Dossaaks (two of the nomadic tribes living in the region) cooperate with Malian and French counter-terrorism operations, again fuelling both ethnic rivalries and Fulani alienation from the state, as Fulanis tend to bear the brunt of those operations (see Crisis Group’s 12 July 2018 report, The Niger-Mali Border: Subordinating Military Action to a Political Strategy).

Priorities for the EU and its member states are to:

  • Step up immediate diplomatic pressure to stop the abuses of civilians, including killings, by Malian security forces. The EU’s capacity-building mission in Mali (EUCAP), which trains and advises the Malian police and gendarmerie, and the EU military training mission, which trains the Malian military, also should redouble efforts to ensure their counterparts in the Malian security forces end such abuses. Those missions also should support additional civilian oversight of, and accountability for, the security forces, including the establishment of a chain for reporting abuses; and
  • Encourage Bamako to strengthen regional authorities in Mopti and Segou by sending trained specialists rather than political advisers; the Malian police and gendarmerie should focus on their traditional functions rather than be diverted to fighting jihadists. The EU also could consider expanding EUCAP’s presence to central Mali to enhance the impact of the mission’s advice and mentoring and help ensure that Malian national security policies and strategies developed in Bamako are implemented beyond the main urban centres in the south.

Armenia’s Change of Leadership Adds Uncertainty over Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia has experienced political turbulence since mass demonstrations in April spurred its prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, to stand down after a decade in power, and the Armenian parliament selected Nikol Pashinyan, the protest leader, to replace him. Pressure on Pashinyan to enact reforms he pledged on coming to power is likely to sharpen after snap parliamentary elections, which are expected in the coming months and which his party appears set to win. With a busy domestic agenda, the new government is unlikely to make any major step toward resolving the country’s 30-year conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave Nagorno-Karabakh or revisit Armenia’s long-held positions on that conflict. The lack of any progress toward resolving the conflict risks leading to a renewed escalation; it could further frustrate Azerbaijan and potentially boost its desire for territorial gains through the use of force.

The priority for both Armenia, Azerbaijan and their respective allies ought to be to mitigate risks of such an escalation. Incidents in the conflict zone, which have intensified since 2012, would fast destroy any hope for a reset in stalled peace talks. In the medium term, the two sides need channels for more direct communication. Their leaders should resume regular meetings, which have not taken place since October 2017 (though the two foreign ministers met in July for the first time since the Armenian leadership change). Meetings between the leaderships could help develop a shared vision for renewed negotiations.

The European Union (EU) has long sought entry points for enlarging its role in Nagorno-Karabakh talks. The uncertainty created by Armenia’s change of leadership might open up some opportunities.      

  • In addition to supporting the conflict’s only mediating body – the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group – the EU could use its bilateral ties and the engagement of its special representative for the South Caucasus to help both countries establish channels of communication, even if informal, among stakeholders including their militaries, political advisers to the two governments and Armenian and Azerbaijani civil societies.
  • In 2017, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed in principle to increase the number of OSCE observers working in the conflict zone, but the sides remain at odds over aspects of the new observers’ deployment. To help resolve the impasse, the EU could offer resources and share its experiences from other conflicts, while vocally backing the increase.
  • The EU should reorient its peacebuilding activities toward stimulating greater public support for a future peace deal, particularly among youth groups and people living along the front lines and the Azerbaijani-Armenian international borders.
  • The EU and other international actors also might consider additional financial support, including for UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) efforts to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of a potential escalation.   

Reducing Risks of Escalation through Communication

The new Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has a limited policy record on Nagorno-Karabakh. He is the first Armenian leader in two decades who played no personal role in the war, though he was born in Armenia’s Tavush area, near the eastern border with Azerbaijan, which has suffered a serious economic downturn due to the conflict.

Yet while Pashinyan lacks his predecessors’ links to Karabakh, he already has glimpsed in his short time in office the difficulty of policymaking toward the disputed enclave. He spent his first weeks as prime minister building trust with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto leadership, which had been loyal to Sargsyan, including calling for its greater engagement in the peace process. Those statements were poorly received in Baku, which is wary of what it perceives as attempts to “legitimise” those authorities, and in turn insists on the participation of representatives of displaced Azerbaijanis from Karabakh.

Pashinyan and his team thus far have mainly aligned with the traditional policy lines of their predecessors. That is unlikely to change while they remain focused on domestic reforms and keeping the transition on track. But, in an environment of deep distrust between the parties, the lack of clarity regarding Yerevan’s intentions toward the enclave risks increasing tensions. Some Azerbaijani officials already express frustration over the prolonged uncertainty, which, they believe, entrenches a status quo Baku desires to change.

Thus far, the two sides have prevented major incidents. But the risk remains of tactical moves by either side or inadvertent incidents spiralling out of control. Nagorno-Karabakh is among the most heavily militarised places in the world. Any escalation could create a humanitarian crisis. Around 300,000 people live in the 15km-wide zone along the Azerbaijani side of the line of contact. All of the 150,000 Armenians residing in Nagorno-Karabakh are within reach of Azerbaijani missiles and artillery shells. Renewed fighting could cause more destruction than the escalation over four days in April 2016, which led to more than 200 deaths.

Multilevel communication, including between militaries, could help minimise risks of inadvertent escalation.

A main worry is that communication between field commanders in and around Nagorno-Karabakh is non-existent. For years contacts largely have been limited to the highest levels – the two countries’ presidents and foreign ministers. Multilevel communication, including between the sides’ militaries, could help minimise risks of inadvertent escalation. Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s leadership should show more readiness to open channels between lower-level counterparts. For its part, the EU should explore opportunities to help build new lines of communication and deliver messages between the two sides. It also could consider facilitating targeted mediation on humanitarian issues that, among other things, might stimulate progress of official talks in the OSCE Minsk Group format.

In 2017, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed, in principle, to increase the number of conflict observers of the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office from the current six to thirteen. As yet, the sides have not carried out this important albeit limited step toward improving transparency along the line of contact. Baku fears the increase might further solidify the status quo in the conflict zone. It is reluctant to permit the deployment of the extra observers without concessions from Yerevan; Armenia’s new leadership rejects making any such concessions. The EU should commit to support the extra observers with funds and by sharing its ceasefire monitoring expertise.

Since the April 2016 escalation, the UN and ICRC have worked to reduce the potential human cost of a future escalation, including by supporting civilian protection initiatives and constructing bomb shelters in the conflict zone. The EU and other international actors should provide financial backing to this effort, as needed.    

A Reset of the Peace Process

Talks between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have been deadlocked since the April 2016 escalation. Armenia demands the determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status as a precondition for accommodating Azerbaijan’s key demand – the return of the territories adjacent to the Armenian-populated enclave and controlled by Armenia since 1993. The two capitals disagree on Karabakh’s status, however. Yerevan advocates for its independence. Baku’s starting point is that the enclave needs to reintegrate into Azerbaijan.

These positions are very close to the two sides’ stances of almost a quarter century ago, when the bloody 1992-1994 war in Nagorno-Karabakh had just ended. Their intransigence today in effect sweeps aside the Madrid Principles, a formula to which the two sides agreed in 2007 for resolving issues at the core of the conflict (related to the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the return of the adjacent territories to Baku’s control and security arrangements). Since then, both sides have been backsliding, as both have built up their armies and purchased long-range missiles and other modern weaponry.

Escaping this stalemate will not be easy. It will require commitment from Azerbaijan and Armenia’s new leadership to enter talks and find a compromise solution, likely along the lines of the Madrid Principles. This also will require consistent efforts by mediators. But greater engagement between the two societies could help as well and here the EU can play an important role. The year 2019 will mark the end of its investment in two programs aimed at stimulating such dialogue: the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the Peacebuilding through Capacity Enhancement and Civic Engagement program. The EU should consider renewing these programs after a careful review of their impact. Such programs should primarily focus on youth groups – to help develop a vision of future peace between societies that have been divided for three decades – as well as people living in the frontline regions and along the Azerbaijan-Armenia international borders. A new long-term commitment to fostering exchanges between the two countries’ civil societies could start to bridge the existing gulf between the two sides and set a foundation for broader participation in discussions of peace.

Encouraging Reform and Reconciliation in Somalia

The 16-17 July high-level Somalia Partnership Forum in Brussels, which brought together senior Somali officials, major donors and international organisations to discuss support to Somalia, came at a critical time for the country. Preparations for its first direct elections in decades, scheduled for 2020 (the parliamentary vote) and 2021 (the presidential), are underway. The African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) is drawing down its forces and progressively transferring responsibilities to the federal government and security forces. The European Union (EU)’s decision to begin granting Somalia 100 million euros in direct budgetary support, benchmarked to revenue collection and anti-corruption measures, provides the Somali government incentives for reform.

The government’s main challenge is to carry out its National Transition Plan for Security, which lays out how its forces will take over from AMISOM, and its Political Roadmap on Inclusive Politics, which calls for a constitutional review process, direct elections by 2020, and clan reconciliation. There are obstacles ahead. Mogadishu and the governments of Somalia’s six federal states (or regions) have been unable to overcome their disagreements and implement reforms; the Islamist Al-Shabaab insurgency has proved resilient; a standoff between semi-autonomous federal state of Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland threatens to escalate into open war; and spillover effects of the Gulf crisis have provoked a sharp deterioration of the Somali government’s relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), roiled Somalia’s already factious politics and aggravated tensions between Mogadishu and Somali regions.

In this context, there are several steps the EU and its member states could take:

  • Work in coordination with other international partners to press the federal government and Somali regions to implement the Plan for Security and the Political Roadmap, particularly the constitutional review process, and monitor progress;
  • Encourage AMISOM in this transitional period to focus more on mentoring, joint operations and greater interaction with Somali forces rather than merely training;
  • Support local and foreign mediation – notably by actors with leverage on one or more of the parties, such as the UAE and Ethiopia – to de-escalate tensions between Puntland and Somaliland; and
  • Explore, together with Gulf and Horn of Africa leaders, the option of holding a conference on Red Sea security comprising outside powers whose competition for influence is fuelling instability in Somalia and elsewhere in the Horn.  

Stuttering Progress toward Security Sector Reform and Elections

At a March meeting of the Somali National Security Council, the government and leaders of its six federal states (or regions), agreed on a timeline to integrate local security forces into an army of 18,000 soldiers and a 32,000-strong police force. Integration along these lines would be an important step: it would help establish more representative and effective security forces while addressing concerns that they are dominated by certain clans. Since that meeting, however, there has been little progress. Both Mogadishu and federal states appear to have failed to improve their cooperation on security matters despite repeated pledges to do so. A row between the government of the federal state of Jubaland and Mogadishu in mid-July over the replacement of the Somali National Army commander in Jubaland is symptomatic of the chronic mistrust hampering progress (a general appointed by Mogadishu to command the 43rd Division, General Ali Mohammed Bogmadow, in the city of Kismayo was refused entry after landing at the airport on 13 July and ordered back, allegedly because Jubaland authorities were not consulted).

Increased European support should be tied to concrete steps on key priorities.

Federal government and regional leaders discussed ways to break such logjams at a May meeting in Baidoa, the capital of South West State, one of Somalia’s federal states. Although the tone of the gathering was positive, it – like its predecessors – in essence papered over key issues obstructing cooperation between Mogadishu and regions, notably how to apportion power and resources among them. While those disagreements remain unresolved, centre-periphery tensions will persist.

The EU could create incentives for the government and federal state leaders to break the deadlock. Increased European support should be tied to concrete steps on key priorities. These might include, for example, the completion of a constitutional review; agreement on legislation to apportion power and resources; and the creation of a functional and independent authority to address, arbitrate and resolve centre-periphery disputes. The constitutional review process, which started in May and envisages a final document by 2019, is particularly critical. Without a permanent constitution, efforts to build national institutions, including an army, and reforms aimed at enabling competitive elections are unlikely to endure.

There appears to be broad consensus among African troop contributors and Western donors that AMISOM will draw down, but only gradually, as the Somali government assumes responsibility for providing security. In preparation, AMISOM should move away from only training Somali forces and include those forces in joint operations, allowing for more hands on mentoring and interaction with other African armies.  

Al-Shabaab’s Resilience

Despite intensified U.S. airstrikes, Al-Shabaab remains strong. It owes its resilience in large part to political infighting both within the government and between the government and member states, as well as to those entities’ failure to govern notionally liberated areas. The lack of federal and member states’ administrative control means insurgents can continue to tax and intimidate local populations. Moreover, AMISOM and Somali forces have not sustained their military pressure on the insurgency, which has allowed Al-Shabaab to regroup and rebuild in the country’s vast rural hinterland.

Even in those parts of the country where security has improved somewhat, Al-Shabaab is adapting. For the first time in several years, the group did not carry out a large-scale, vehicle-borne bombing in the capital Mogadishu during Ramadan – arguably a result of the government’s draconian road closures. But, instead of resorting to bombings, militants conducted a campaign of assassinations in Mogadishu and the neighbouring Shabelle valley, killing over 100 people, most of them junior officials. Even the government’s tightened security measures showed their limitations: on 7 July, twin car bomb attacks in Mogadishu targeted the interior ministry and killed at least fifteen soldiers, demonstrating Al-Shabaab’s continued lethal reach.

While neither the national transitional security plan nor the political roadmap are panaceas, effective implementation of the former, notably its security sector reforms, should help address some of the gaps the insurgents exploit, while the latter could help gain the support of communities whose wariness about Mogadishu can lead them to tacitly support Al-Shabaab.

War Drums in the North

Another worry is the military standoff between the semi-autonomous federal state of Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland over control of two regions they have long contested, Sool and Sanaag. The two sides have clashed repeatedly since the start of 2018, often with large numbers of casualties, and are massing forces in the contested areas.

A war in the north would undercut the improvements in governance Somaliland and Puntland have made in the last ten years, as well as the international good-will they – particularly Somaliland – enjoy. It could have enormous human costs, triggering a large-scale humanitarian crisis, and potentially contribute to instability further south. It also could exacerbate other threats in the north, with Al-Shabaab still present, a small branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) operating in pockets of Puntland and human trafficking and piracy continuing.

The EU should consider supporting efforts by the UN and Ethiopia, among others, to mediate between the two sides. The role of clan elders is especially crucial and ought to be encouraged. While the two sides seem to have calmed their hostile rhetoric, the threat of war and imperative for mediation remain.

Alongside efforts to mediate between Puntland and Somaliland, detoxifying relations between Mogadishu and Hargeisa would help reduce the threat of armed conflict in the north – given that Mogadishu risks getting pulled into the conflict behind Puntland – and improve prospects for stability in the country as a whole. The EU could use its close ties to Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” and Somaliland President Muse Bihi for the resumption of talks between the Somali government and Somaliland, which broke down after the latter unilaterally signed a deal in March with the Emirati conglomerate DP World to develop and operate Berbera port, infuriating Mogadishu officials. The government’s June decision to cancel Somaliland’s Special Arrangement – a framework that has enabled donor engagement in Somaliland since 2013 – further worsened relations between the two. They are unlikely to improve unless it is renewed.

The Gulf’s Impact

The spat between Gulf powers, which in June 2017 saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE and allies break diplomatic relations with and impose an embargo on Qatar, has aggravated Somalia’s instability. President Farmajo asserts that he remains neutral, but the UAE perceives his government as too close to Qatar. In response, Abu Dhabi appears to have upped support to Somalia’s federal states. Farmajo, in turn, has deepened ties with Doha and Ankara and repressed rivals, using their alleged ties to the Emiratis as a pretext.

June 2018 brought signs the Somali and Emirati governments recognise the need to re-engage. There was a marked decrease in antagonistic rhetoric and unconfirmed reports suggested backchannel diplomacy was underway. That same month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Mogadishu, reportedly in part to sound out Mogadishu’s willingness to accept his mediation.

The EU could be a potential broker of talks among the outside powers currently vying for influence around the Red Sea. Its strong role in maritime security, specifically via Operation Atalanta, the counter-piracy military initiative it launched in 2008 off the Horn of Africa coastal line and whose mandate has been extended to December 2018, gives it influence. So too do its relatively good relations with all countries involved.

EU foreign ministers and the EU special representative for the Horn of Africa have called for a forum that would bring together Horn and Gulf states to discuss ways to decrease tensions among Gulf powers, Turkey and other states. The African Union’s High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan also has mooted the idea of some form of dialogue among Horn and Gulf states. It is an idea worth pursuing as a means of managing competition and promoting regional stability. Bringing together such an array of rival countries and facilitating constructive debate would be no small challenge. Ambitions should be modest. But all sides should have an interest in avoiding inadvertent escalation that would harm regional peace and security as well as shipping and other commercial activity.

Syria: From One War to More

Bashar al-Assad’s regime has gained a firm upper hand in the Syrian war. With sustained support from Russia and Iran, it has restored its control in the heart of the country’s heavily populated western corridor. Now the Syrian leadership is turning its sights toward remaining areas outside its control. In the south west, a regime offensive now underway risks causing considerable loss of life, displacement and human suffering. It also could provoke tensions between Israel and Iran. The north west (held by an array of rebel factions, ringed by Turkish military observation points) and north east (controlled by the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces) appear better protected from attack for the moment. Yet, there as well, the war may re-escalate.

In all three areas of Syria that the regime is seeking to recapture, the European Union (EU) and its member states have an important role to play in averting the worst-case scenario, in the medium term, and aiding physical and political reconstruction, in the long term. In the meantime, the EU and its member states should continue to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in need everywhere and, by virtue of their diplomatic ties with all sides, facilitate communication and diplomatic understandings among warring parties.

The South West

In late June, Syrian forces backed by Russian air power launched an offensive to retake opposition-held areas in the south west. The attack marked the effective end of the “de-escalation” agreement negotiated among the U.S., Russia and Jordan, which had significantly reduced violence in this part of the country since July 2017, although Russia denied it had withdrawn from the deal. (It made the dubious claim that it was fulfilling the agreement’s counter-terrorism provisions by eliminating southern jihadists, which the U.S. and Jordan had failed to do.)

After a swift advance down the south west’s rebel-held eastern countryside, the Syrian regime and Russia forced the negotiated surrender of most local rebels. Only the western countryside remains unresolved, including a basin occupied by a local Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate and rebel-held sections adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. As many as 234,500 people had been displaced as of 11 July. Many who had sheltered along the Jordanian border have returned home since the reimposition of regime control, but according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 160,000 are currently camped out along the Israeli-occupied Golan.

Once the Syrian military and aligned paramilitaries advance on these last areas next to the Golan, the human cost will rise substantially. So will the risk of a regional escalation.

Israel has provided various forms of support (including small arms) to opposition factions and local communities along the 1974 armistice line, seeking to maintain a friendly buffer between itself and a Syrian regime which has enlisted the help of Iranian forces and various Iran-linked militias. Israel rejects the presence of such groups anywhere in Syria, and views areas alongside the occupied Golan as especially sensitive. In 2018, it has steadily escalated strikes on alleged Iranian assets as far away as the Syria-Iraq border. A dangerous series of tit-for-tat cross-border rocket attacks and airstrikes took place in May. How Israel will react to regime advances toward the Golan remains unclear, but the response almost certainly will be a function of the degree of perceived Iranian involvement. Israel may step up arms supplies to local rebels, or hit pro-regime forces directly, risking an escalatory spiral if Iran and/or Hizbollah decide to retaliate.

A conditional, non-violent return of the Syrian state would [...] mitigate the risk of escalation that any chaotic, bloody offensive would entail.

There are indications that Israel may have reached an understanding with Russia whereby the latter has committed to block the participation of Iran-backed foreign fighters in the offensive. Still, even an offensive that excludes Iran-linked militias will be complicated and risky. The regime’s military will face serious obstacles clearing a demilitarised zone holding not only tens of thousands of displaced people, but also militants fighting with the Israeli military at their back. And even if the offensive proceeds without a major regional escalation, it is not clear how long Iran-linked elements will keep their distance from the Golan.

Israel should appeal to Russia for preferential terms for the last rebel pockets near the Golan, and it should encourage rebels with whom it has collaborated to negotiate constructively. A conditional, non-violent return of the Syrian state would be better for these areas’ civilians and mitigate the risk of escalation that any chaotic, bloody offensive would entail. Meanwhile, the EU and its member states should continue to support humanitarian relief to the south west, including pushing the regime for open humanitarian access via Damascus. They should also support Jordan, which will need continuing assistance to house hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees already there. Many of those refugees will not be able to return safely to regime-held Syria. As their stay in Jordan extends, the country’s economy and institutions will need European help.

The North West

Idlib and adjacent districts of the rebel-held north west hold nearly three million Syrians, roughly half of whom are internally displaced persons. The area is controlled by a range of competing rebel factions, the strongest of which is the jihadist Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Conditions in the north west are chaotic, and would become truly hellish in the event of a major pro-regime offensive.

The Syrian leadership has repeatedly signalled such intent. A de-escalation deal negotiated in late 2017 and early 2018 between Russia, Turkey and Iran has averted a showdown for now and enabled the establishment of twelve Turkish observation points surrounding rebel-held areas. But the durability of this arrangement is questionable; it could shatter if and when gains in southern Syria encourage the regime and its backers to shift their focus toward regaining control of the north west. A humanitarian disaster is all but certain in the event they attack. The resulting surge of hundreds of thousands of displaced toward the Turkish border would create a new humanitarian crisis, as well as a political one, as Turkey has indicated it cannot absorb more refugees and may try to prevent them from crossing the border, or let them in only to push them to exit again on a dangerous and uncertain journey toward Europe.

Whether an offensive will take place rests largely with Russia, whose active support (especially air power) would be essential for the regime to gain and hold ground in this rebel stronghold. Though it has upheld the de-escalation deal with Ankara thus far, Moscow has indicated that it will not tolerate continued HTS control in the north west; if the jihadist faction remains ascendant and/or attacks on regime forces resume from rebel territory, an eventual Russian-backed offensive cannot be excluded.

To avoid such an outcome, Turkey should accelerate its efforts to isolate and weaken hardline jihadists, while bolstering non-jihadist alternatives within the northern armed opposition that could absorb any pragmatic, potentially reconcilable HTS elements and eventually confront the remaining jihadist hard core. The EU and its member states, alongside the United States, should appeal to Turkey to accept their help, so they can ensure that a Turkish-led counter-terrorism effort in Idlib is intelligence-driven and properly targeted, coordinated and resourced. They should also continue to support humanitarian assistance to Idlib’s millions of civilians, to avoid both a humanitarian crisis and an additional burden on Turkish relief bodies.

The North East

Compared to the south west and Idlib, north-eastern Syria today enjoys relative stability, under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its dominant faction, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Yet the durability of the present situation appears largely dependent on decisions to be made within the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. In this context, President Donald Trump’s stated desire for a quick U.S. withdrawal from Syria, if carried out, could expose the north east to a dangerous free-for-all.

The U.S. military presence on the ground appears to have played a key role in deterring external attack on the north east from Turkey, which views the YPG as an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – an organisation it (as well as the U.S. and European states) considers a terrorist group, one that it has battled on its own territory for decades. Once the YPG-dominated areas are no longer protected by a U.S. security umbrella, Turkey could decide to launch an attack to dislodge the organisation just as it did in the Afrin enclave in north-west Syria. The Syrian regime, too, has telegraphed its intention to restore its authority throughout the north east. If the U.S. withdraws without a negotiated arrangement mutually tolerable to the YPG, Damascus and Ankara, a fight for control of territory and resources could well ensue, and jihadists would seek to exploit any resulting opportunities.

The EU and its member states should immediately and substantially increase their own support for restoring services in the north east.

In the meantime, the U.S. decision to freeze $200 million of stabilisation support – including essential programming to restore basic services in Raqqa and other areas liberated from ISIS – could cause a serious decline in living conditions and heighten simmering local tensions.

The EU and its member states, along with fellow members of the anti-ISIS coalition, should immediately and substantially increase their own support for restoring services in the north east. Priorities include demining, providing health services and restoring water and electricity supplies, with particular emphasis on sectors and areas directly affected by the U.S. funding freeze. The EU and its member states should do so in order to compensate for potential U.S. cuts, and to demonstrate that Washington’s allies will share the costs of stabilisation as long as the U.S. military continues to supply the protection necessary for them to do so.


The regime’s attempts to restore its authority over the entirety of the country are liable to cause further humanitarian suffering and attendant waves of displacement, while potentially heightening tensions between Israel and Iran. The EU and its member states should continue their humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and expand stabilisation assistance in areas beyond Damascus’s control where possible. They should use member states’ collective access to all sides of the conflict to continue to play a mediating and diplomatic role, from support for Syria’s ongoing peace process in Geneva down to negotiations with Damascus over humanitarian access to hard-to-reach or newly accessible areas.