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.
This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to experts Dareen Khalifa and Jerome Drevon about ISIS in Syria after the death of its leader Abdullah Qardash, the precarious calm that prevails across the country and the evolution of al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in the north west, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Rocket attack killed ten govt-backed fighters in Aleppo, Idlib ceasefire held despite violations, and Israel reportedly conducted multiple deadly missile attacks. In Aleppo province, rocket attack on military bus 13 May killed ten govt-aligned militants and injured nine in Anjara area. In Idlib province, March 2020 ceasefire held despite violations reportedly including Russian air-strikes. In north east, Turkish-backed, Kurdish and regime forces reportedly traded fire throughout month. Turkish President Erdoğan 3 May announced initiative to build infrastructure in north-west Syria to facilitate voluntary return of one million Syrian refugees; Erdoğan 23 May announced plan to launch cross-border operation targeting Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and creating 30 km “safe zone” along border, without giving specific timeline; U.S. next day warned Turkey against offensive; Turkish drone strikes 27 May reportedly struck targets in Tel Rifaat town, north of Aleppo. Ahead of July UN Security Council vote on renewing mandate for cross-border humanitarian aid to north west Syria, Russian deputy UN ambassador said there was “no reason” to continue aid deliveries, raising prospect of Russian veto. In central desert, Russia reportedly carried out airstrikes targeting Islamic State (ISIS), while ISIS allegedly continued low-level attacks. Reports of Russian troop redeployments mid-month surfaced claiming Russia troops had withdrawn from Latakia province to Russia’s Hmeimim airbase, and allegedly transferred bases to Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hizbollah. In Deir ez-Zor province, unidentified aircraft 7 May reportedly struck alleged Iran-backed militia positions in govt-held Hawija Katia area. Syrian state media reported Israel 11 May fired missiles at Hadar town, Quneitra province; 13 May carried out missile attack on alleged Iranian-linked target in Masyaf area, Hama province, killing five Syrians, including one civilian, and injuring seven; 20 May fired missiles near Damascus capital, killing three. Govt 17 May raised unsubsidised benzine and diesel price by around 40%, while cement price rose by 90%, raising fears of new bout of inflation.
Aleppo was devastated by bombing and shelling during the Syrian war. It remains unsafe, with residents subject to shakedowns by the regime’s security forces and various militias. Damascus and its outside backers should curb this predation as a crucial first step toward the city’s recovery.
After suffering grievously under ISIS, and during the battles to defeat it, Raqqa is being rebuilt. The calm is tenuous, however. The U.S. and partners should work toward long-term stability in Syria’s north east, through investment and talks about sustainable governance and security arrangements.
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.
Jailbreaks and prison riots were a central component of IS resurgence in Iraq and are a serious threat in Syria today.
I wouldn’t expect that Turkey would like to expand the zone it occupies in the northeast [of Syria]. A move like this will require a difficult conversation with the Russian.
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.
Turkey is increasingly relying on airpower in its fight against the PKK. New parties have been drawn into the conflict as it spreads to new theatres in Iraq and Syria, which, for now at least, complicates potential efforts to settle things down.
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood talks to Crisis Group’s Turkey expert, Nigar Göksel, about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent trip to Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Turkey’s involvement in conflicts in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus, and its wider foreign relations.
Could the seizure of Afghanistan by the Taliban just before the twentieth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks be a turning point for jihadist militancy worldwide? (Online Event, 28th September 2021)
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
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.