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.
Poison gas and missile response have heightened tensions over the Syria conflict. Washington and Moscow should respond to the new risks by pursuing their stated common interest: sufficient de-escalation of the war's violence to establish a meaningful political track toward settlement.
Fighting continued on multiple fronts, most intensely in east Damascus and near Hama in west, as talks failed to make progress. Rebels besieged by regime forces in al-Waer, last rebel bastion in Homs city, 13 March struck deal with regime allowing them to leave for north with light weapons and families; evacuation ongoing end-month. Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), rebel alliance dominated by Salafi-jihadist group Fath al-Sham, claimed 11 March twin suicide bombings in Damascus Old City that killed 74, reportedly including 43 Iraqi Shiite pilgrims and twenty members of pro-govt forces. Two as yet unclaimed suicide bombings struck Palace of Justice and restaurant in Damascus 15 March reportedly killing more than 30. U.S. airstrikes 16 March allegedly hit mosque west of Aleppo city, reportedly killing over 50 mostly civilians; Pentagon denied it destroyed mosque, said it targeted and hit al-Qaeda gathering across street. Rebels including Free Syrian Army (FSA) and HTS 19 March launched offensive to take territory in Jobar and Abbasiyin districts in E Damascus, however regime forces reportedly took back captured territory in following days. Rebels including HTS and FSA groups 21 March launched major offensive against regime-held areas near Hama city, capturing at least eleven villages and towns and advancing to within kilometres of city. Regime counter-attack supported by Russian warplanes, stalled advance. In run-up to offensive on Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold Raqqa, U.S. aircraft 21 March for first time airdropped members of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Tabqa, about 40km west of Raqqa; SDF 24 March reached ISIS-held Tabqa dam on Euphrates River. Turkey 29 March said it had ended Operation Euphrates Shield in north begun Aug 2016 aimed at pushing ISIS away from border and prevent YPG advance westwards across Euphrates, Turkish troops remained in captured territory. FSA groups late March pushed ISIS fighters out of sparsely populated areas in south east. Regime and some rebel groups took part in procedural talks 23 Feb-3 March in Geneva; rebels boycotted talks in Kazakh capital Astana mid-month citing regime ceasefire violations. Next round of talks in Geneva 24-31 March made no progress toward peace agreements. U.S. 30 March said priority was no longer “getting Assad out”.
This report examines President Trump’s emerging counter-terrorism policies, the dilemmas his administration faces in battling ISIS and al-Qaeda across the Middle East and South Asia, and how to avoid deepening the disorder both groups exploit.
Four years after plunging into Syria’s civil war, Hizbollah has achieved its core aim of preserving the Assad regime. Yet with no clear exit strategy, the Lebanese “Party of God” faces ever greater costs unless it can lower the sectarian flames, open dialogue with non-jihadist rebel groups and help pave the way for a negotiated settlement.
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.
[The West has] thrown values by the wayside, but also not been able to act in [their] own interests, because [they] let things [in Syria] go too long.
The pressures within Israel to do something regarding the humanitarian catastrophe [in Syria] are not accompanied by a politically realistic strategy.
[The problem was that] there is no clear alternative to [Syria's President] Assad if you want to preserve the regime, which Russia is set on.
Nothing about [the U.S. missile strike] suggests that the fundamentals of the Syria conflict have shifted.
The [Syrian] regime refused to discuss a meaningful political transition even when it appeared to be losing ground militarily, so there is no prospect of it choosing to do so now that it has momentum.
Turkey has always set the Euphrates as a red line [for Kurdish forces in Syria]. The problem is it will be a huge gamble to really do that with US, Russia and YPG, who are a proficient fighting force.
Originally published in The New York Review of Books
With the war in Syria set to continue well into 2017, many of the conflict's core challenges remain unresolved. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, we encourage the EU and its member states to use future funding and reconstruction as a lever to ensure that meaningful progress is made toward an overarching political settlement.
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.
Despite the Syrian regime’s brutally effective campaign to recapture Aleppo, it cannot celebrate victory yet. In this Q&A, Senior Syria Analyst Noah Bonsey talks about the factors likely to fuel greater violence, increased radicalisation and more massive displacement.