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.
As a new round of Russian and Turkish-backed peace talks on Syria gets underway, Senior Syria Analyst Noah Bonsey looks at the shifting political dynamics and the challenges ahead.
After ceasefire agreed late Dec, violence declined in NW but regime continued offensives against rebels outside Damascus as jihadist and non-jihadist rebel factions continued to clash. Russia and Turkey organised talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana 23-24 Jan; regime and non-jihadist opposition groups, with notable exception of Ahrar al-Sham, attended; Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to form trilateral commission to monitor and enforce ceasefire, details and prospects for accomplishing that remain unclear; neither regime nor any opposition group endorsed agreement. Regime forces 29 Jan said they had recaptured Wadi Barada valley near Damascus including source of most of city’s water. U.S. bombed training camp of al-Qaeda-linked Fath al-Sham in Idlib province 19 Jan killing over 100 alleged militants. Fath al-Sham Salafi-jihadist group, previously called Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham rebels clashed in Idlib province in NW 18-20 Jan. Fath al-Sham attacked non-jihadist rebel faction Jaish al-Mujahideen west of Aleppo 23-24 Jan; following attack six rebel factions joined Ahrar al-Sham. Fath al-Sham and four other jihadist factions 28 Jan formed new alliance Tahrir al-Sham. Islamic State (IS) 16 Jan broke through regime lines in eastern city Deir al-Zour after months of stalemate, surrounding military airport; Russian planes 30 Jan conducted airstrikes on IS positions in Deir al-Zour area. Rebels, backed by Turkish forces, continued efforts to push IS out of al-Bab, north of Aleppo. Turkey and Russia conducted joint airstrikes on IS positions near al-Bab mid-late Jan. Russian aircraft carrier deployed off Syrian coast in Oct began journey home mid-Jan; over 30 Russian fighter jets and helicopter gunships reportedly remained in Syria. U.S. 29 Jan said Saudi Arabia’s King Salman at President Trump’s request agreed to support safe zones for displaced people in Syria; regime 30 Jan said establishing safe zones without its consent would be “unsafe”; Trump’s commitment to safe zone remains unclear.
Turkey is under growing pressure from nearly three million Syrian refugees. To mitigate domestic tensions and spillover from regional conflicts, Ankara needs to develop, and find support for, new policies that open refugees’ routes to jobs, education and permanent legal status.
On both sides of the Syria-Turkey border, the uncompromising strategies of Ankara, Turkey’s insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and its Syria-based affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are propelling a dangerous conflict toward escalation. The lone force able to head it off is the United States, and if it fails, Islamic State is ready to exploit any new disorder.
Many questions surround Moscow’s surprise announcement of a force reduction in Syria. Yet it clearly enhanced Russia’s leverage over the regime and provided a much-needed dose of credibility to the nascent political process. Avoiding further regional unravelling and spiralling radicalisation, however, and pushing the conflict toward an initial settlement will require further adjustments in Russia's strategy, including addressing the Assad conundrum.
Russia’s North Caucasus insurgency has gone relatively quiet, as Moscow crushed militants and many left to fight in Syria and Iraq. But longstanding grievances remain and the war may only have widened, as evidenced by the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt and the emergence of new groups swearing allegiance to the Islamic State in Russia itself.
Syria’s civil war is stuck in a vicious cycle, and the U.S. is best placed to change the appalling status quo. Washington should take advantage of opportunities in southern Syria to launch a new policy to improve the chance of a political settlement, chiefly by deterring regime aerial attacks on rebel-held civilian areas.
The Islamic State (IS) is attracting Central Asians to Syria and fostering new links among radicals within the region. Unless the five Central Asian governments develop a credible, coordinated counter-action plan, including improved security measures but also social, political and economic reforms, growing radicalism will eventually pose a serious threat to their stability.
I think it's fair to assume that Turkish reluctance to get further involved in the Aleppo fight was linked to its understanding with Russia regarding [Operation] Euphrates Shield.
Have the [Syrian] rebels failed tremendously? Absolutely. Have the supporting states been just as factious as the rebels? Absolutely.
The Russian government understands very well the condition of the Syrian army and their capacity to really govern in [the Sunni areas]. They need to maintain what they have already gained.
The U.S. alliance with the YPG [People’s Protection Units] in Syria is purely tactical. It’s using the YPG as if it’s a security contractor.
We’re in uncharted territory [with Moscow-led Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan]. We’re here in Russia’s back yard, and the ball is in their court.
Russia doesn't appear to share Iran's key priorities in Syria. Not only does Assad appear more dispensable to Russia, but Russian officials also appear more comfortable with the concept of federalism.
Lebanon hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, more refugees per capita than anywhere in the world. International support is needed to keep this fragile country from reaching the breaking point.
In a keynote speech for the World Water Week in Stockholm on 28 August 2016, our MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann assesses the role of water in Middle East conflicts – even, potentially, when used in the cultivation of Yemen’s beloved stimulant, qat.
Originally published in The New York Review of Books