The Syrian conflict since 2011 is a constellation of overlapping crises. Each of its global, regional and sub-national dimensions demands a tailored response set within an overarching framework. Instead, chronic violence and worsening suffering have killed more than 250,000 people, fueling radicalisation, refugee flight and a self-sustaining war economy. Outside stakeholders must learn from the way the Syrian conflict has repeatedly dashed unrealistic expectations on all sides. Crisis Group pursues a comprehensive approach for achieving a sustainable decline in violence and, ultimately, a political settlement. We also seek to correct dominant narratives that focus on jihadism and migrant flows, which are the symptoms, rather than the causes, of the problem.
15 March marks the Syrian uprising’s tenth anniversary. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Syria expert Dareen Khalifa says that with a political solution out of reach, consolidating the existing ceasefires and alleviating human suffering is the best possible way forward for now.
Clashes erupted in Manbij area in north east, Russian strikes in Idlib province resumed, and suspected ISIS militants killed dozens in central desert. In north east, following 31 May-1 June clashes between Kurdish security forces and predominantly Arab residents protesting mandatory conscription in Manbij area that left at least eight dead, Kurdish civilian administration 2 June agreed to suspend conscription, release protesters and investigate shootings after meeting with local tribes’ elders same day; latter 7 June issued 17 requests, including permanent end to conscription. In Hasakah province, also in north east, landmine 9 June struck Russian military convoy in al-Asadiyah village, killing one soldier. In Idlib province in north west, March 2020 ceasefire continued to hold despite reported clashes, artillery shelling and Russian airstrikes in countryside throughout month that killed at least 31; notably, in Jabal al Zawyeh area, regime artillery and Russian airstrikes reportedly killed 13 civilians and militants affiliated with jihadist rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) 10 June, and at least another nine 17 June. In Daraa province in south west, unidentified gunmen 1-23 June reportedly killed eight former rebels who had enrolled in or struck reconciliation deals with govt forces while landmine killed at least four govt soldiers. In Aleppo province, missile strikes 12 June reportedly targeted hospital in Afrin town, killing at least 13 people; some observers suspected Russia while Turkey blamed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). In central desert, Russia continued air raids against suspected Islamic State (ISIS) targets throughout month, reportedly killing dozens; suspected ISIS militants 3-5 June reportedly killed 23 govt troops and Iran-linked fighters in separate attacks. Israel 8 June reportedly launched airstrikes on govt troops and allied militia fighters in capital Damascus, killing at least 11. U.S. 27 June announced airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting “facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups”; Iran’s foreign affairs ministry immediately criticised action and unidentified assailants 28 June fired rockets at U.S. base in Deir Ez-Zor province. Ahead of 10 July UN Security Council vote to renew cross-border aid mandate, World Health Organization 25 June warned failure to renew mandate could trigger new “humanitarian catastrophe”.
With the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib paused, the time is now for a deal sparing the rebellion’s last stronghold the full wrath of reconquest. The parties should pursue an improved ceasefire including the regime, Russia, Turkey and the Islamist militants entrenched in the province.
Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon have thought many times about going home but in the end deemed the risks too great. Donors should increase aid allowing the Lebanese government to continue hosting the Syrians, so that any decision they make to leave is truly voluntary.
A tumultuous month in north-eastern Syria has left a tense standoff among the regime, Turkey and the YPG, mediated by Russia and, to some degree, still the U.S. All parties should respect the ceasefire as the regime and YPG negotiate more stable long-term arrangements.
Rebuilding war-torn Syria poses a formidable challenge for European governments, which are unwilling to legitimise the Damascus regime by funding reconstruction. Instead, the EU and its member states could consider bankrolling small projects without regime involvement and testing an approach that trades aid for reforms.
Tens of thousands of foreign men, women and children affiliated with ISIS are detained in northeast Syria. The camps where they are held pose a formidable security and humanitarian challenge to the region. Western governments should, at minimum, accelerate the repatriation of women and children.
Once again, the Islamic State may be poised to recover from defeat in its original bases of Iraq and Syria. It is still possible, however, for the jihadist group’s many foes to nip its regrowth in the bud.
Putting the lifeline of three million Syrians up for negotiations every six to 12 months, is an unsustainable situation. And Syrian civilians end up paying the price.
La direction du mouvement [HTC en Syrie] s’efforce désormais de régler ces problèmes. La manière dont elle se comporte vis-à-vis des minorités est en train de changer.
La meilleure des pires options qui se posent aujourd'hui [en Syrie], c'est une impasse prolongée.
The [recent] U.S. [air strikes in Syria were] aimed at a relatively insignificant target in an area where Iran's hands are somewhat tied.
The people who have been released [from detention camps in Syria] are struggling to reintegrate, and the economic situation outside is already very bad.
It seems that what is left of ISIS networks now is that they are getting organized in smaller groups of five or six people who may not be connected to each other even.
As Israeli strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria continue, there is always a risk that occasional spikes of violence could escalate into a broader confrontation.
Originally published in Middle East Eye
A sudden U.S. troop pull-out from north east Syria could prompt a humanitarian crisis, an Islamic State resurgence and renewed conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces, especially its Kurdish component. The U.S. should commit to an eventual, gradual and conditional withdrawal that protects civilians.
Sanctions on Syria aim to protect Syrian civilians from the regime but may end up hurting them instead. Washington should further clarify humanitarian exemptions, specify benchmarks related to civilian protection and offer temporary easing of sanctions as long as these are met.
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.