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.
The Syrian regime vows to reconquer Idlib, the north-western zone hosting its hardest-core remaining jihadist opposition. But an all-out offensive would be calamitous. Turkey and Russia should recommit to their “de-escalation” deal for Idlib, bolstering it with measures that buy time for a lasting solution.
Govt forces continued to bomb jihadist-held Idlib in north west, U.S. announced 400 troops would remain in north east, and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces launched push to take Islamic State’s (ISIS) last stronghold in east. In north west, jihadist group Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and al-Qaeda loyalist splinter Hurras al-Din 10 Feb reached new agreement after public spat. Leadership of HTS-linked civilian administration Salvation Govt took part in opposition conference in Bab al-Hawa on Syria-Turkey border 10 Feb; closing statement called for election of Shura council to form new civilian administration to replace Salvation Govt and for creation of military council including all Idlib’s armed factions. Govt forces 15-28 Feb shelled opposition areas in Idlib, killing at least 40 civilians. Unclaimed bombings next to Salvation Govt offices in Idlib 18 Feb killed 24 people. Russian President Putin hosted summit on Syria with Turkish and Iranian counterparts in Sochi 14 Feb; after summit, Russia said military operations against HTS in Idlib were inevitable. U.S. military 11 Feb said troop withdrawal from north east could begin in weeks. President Assad 17 Feb rejected Kurdish autonomy in north east. Russia 18 Feb insisted Turkey needed Syrian govt’s approval for military action against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), backbone of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). U.S. 21 Feb said France and UK refused U.S. request to deploy coalition “observer force”. U.S. President Trump 22 Feb said 400 U.S. troops would remain in Syria as residual peacekeeping force to set up safe zone. Following Trump’s announcement, Turkish President Erdoğan 23 Feb evoked 1998 Syria-Turkey Adana agreement which apparently allows Turkey to conduct cross-border antiterrorist operations up to 5km into Syria, while stressing proposed safe zone in north east should be under Turkish control. In east, SDF 9 Feb launched push against ISIS’s last holdout in Baghouz area near Iraqi border; besieged fighters 20 Feb began allowing civilian evacuation. In south west, Israeli tank 11 Feb fired at alleged Hizbollah observation posts in Quneitra governorate, despite Russia’s 8 Feb warnings against Israeli attacks in Syria.
Russian mediation helped reduce bloodshed during the Assad regime’s reconquest of southern Syria. But for similar arrangements to work in remaining rebel strongholds, better security guarantees by outside powers are needed to prevent regime reprisals, improve aid flows and, down the road, facilitate refugee return.
Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, half of whom are under eighteen. Despite European aid, tensions are rising as the country strains to accommodate the influx. The answer is smarter integration policies aimed particularly at meeting the needs of vulnerable youth.
President Donald Trump has ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from north-east Syria. This risks chaos and drives home the urgent need for a deal that restores Syrian state sovereignty to its north east, assuages Turkish security concerns and allows for some degree of Kurdish self-rule.
Much of north-eastern Syria has been safe during the civil war. But in the event of U.S. military withdrawal, a mad scramble for control could be unleashed. Washington and Moscow should help their respective allies in Syria reach a decentralisation deal for the area.
Numerous signs point to an imminent Syrian regime offensive to recapture Idlib, the largest remaining rebel-held area. To ward off another humanitarian calamity, Russia, Iran and Turkey should immediately convene talks to extend the truce and seek other ways of removing Idlib’s jihadist hard core.
Too much of the public discussion around repatriating Western citizens, male or female, hinges on an assumption that letting them come home is equivalent to leniency or forgiveness.
Since February 2018, the Israeli-Iranian conflict visibly is no longer ‘cold'.
President Trump said the U.S. would withdraw from Syria, but apparently spontaneously, without prior planning or coordination inside the U.S. government or with Turkey.
[U.S. withdrawal from Syria] basically means you throw the Kurds under the bus. The only thing the Kurds can do is throw themselves into the arms of the regime.
A head-on attack against [Hayat Tahrir al-Sham] now or later would likely destabilize northwest [Syria], prompt a bloody and maybe inconclusive fight, and potentially set off retaliatory attacks inside Turkey. This is why the Turks are pushing so hard for something that approximates the status quo.
The U.S. wants out of Syria and wants to retain some sort of insurance policy against the return of Isis and the expanding influence of Iran. If there is a deal between the [Kurds] and the regime with both the U.S. and Russia as co-guarantors then that might be acceptable to Washington.
Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.
Originally published in The Guardian
It’s easy to see why Britons are hostile to a teenage girl who went to Syria. But barring the door would feed the next round of jihadist recruiting.
Originally published in Bloomberg
Crisis Group’s third update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on economic reforms in Libya, preserving the fragile quiet in Syria’s Idlib province, addressing the plight of civilians in eastern Ukraine, supporting Colombia's uneasy peace process and averting violence in Nigeria's upcoming elections. 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.
The Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey succeeded in averting a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue to provide diplomatic support for Turkey and engage directly with Russia to prevent an attack that would likely have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.