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 U.S. leadership of the international order fades, more countries are seeking to bolster their influence by meddling in foreign conflicts. In this new era of limit testing, Crisis Group’s President Robert Malley lists the Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2019.
U.S. President Trump 19 Dec announced all 2,000 U.S. troops would withdraw from Syria, citing defeat of Islamic State (ISIS) and need to save U.S. from “spending precious lives and trillions of dollars”. Announcement contradicted most of Trump’s senior aides and U.S. Syria strategy as formulated in recent weeks. Russian President Putin 20 Dec applauded decision, while Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – of which Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forms military backbone – denounced withdrawal, saying it will impact negatively campaign against terrorism. Trump 23 Dec signed executive order and same day tweeted that withdrawal would be “slow and highly coordinated”. Trump 31 Dec confirmed troops would be brought home slowly “while at the same time fighting [ISIS] remnants”. Before U.S. announcement, Turkish President Erdoğan 12 Dec said Turkey would launch offensive against YPG east of Euphrates River “within days” (see Turkey); Turkish-backed Syrian civilian and armed opposition voiced support for Turkish intervention. U.S. voiced “grave concern” over potential military incursion and risks for U.S. personnel.Erdoğan 17 Dec said 15 Dec phone conversation with Trump about possible incursion was positive, but that Turkish forces could still intervene “at any moment”. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 23 Dec reported Turkish military build-up at front line of SDF-controlled town of Manbij; Syria’s military 28 Dec entered Manbij area amid calls from YPG for help against threat of attack by Turkey. In north west, intermittent clashes and bombing continued on periphery of Idlib de-escalation zone, but Sept Russia-Turkey agreement covering area held. Following 24 Nov gas attack on Aleppo and Syrian army and Russian retaliatory airstrikes in de-escalation zone next day, U.S. State Department 7 Dec disputed Russian and Syrian govt claims that rebels launched chemical attack, saying it had “credible information that pro-regime forces likely used tear gas against civilians” in Aleppo. In south, after three months of fighting, anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition 5 Dec captured last remaining ISIS urban stronghold around Hajin. Some 2,500 ISIS fighters are thought to have withdrawn into desert further east toward Iraqi border. Following 28-29 Nov Astana talks at which parties failed to reach compromise on constitution drafting committee, foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey 18 Dec announced still-unformed constitutional committee would convene early 2019.
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.
As the Syrian regime masses its forces to recapture the country’s south west from the opposition, another humanitarian disaster looms. The U.S., Russia and Jordan, which brokered a south-western ceasefire in 2017, should urgently extend that truce in preparation for a broader settlement.
An imminent military showdown in Idlib with disastrous human costs can be avoided only if Turkey strikes a deal between Russia, on one hand, and militants, on the other, and deploys its forces along the front lines to deter an escalation.
Facts on the ground in Syria are defining the contours of the country’s political future and also the geography of a looming clash between Israel, Hizbollah and other Iran-allied militias. Russia should broker understandings to prevent a new front from opening.
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.
Rebels [in Southern Syria] are facing a set of options where even the best one is bad - they're stuck between negotiating with Russia through Jordanian mediation, or continuing to resist militarily which will ultimately end with talks under even greater military pressure.
Many of the aims Russia is pursuing in Syria, in their own terms and in specific contexts, are positive. They are probably the party which will tamper down Israeli-Iranian tensions now. The picture gets more complicated if you think in terms of the US’s role in relation to that, though. Any objective good that is achieved through Russian dominance in Syria is probably done at the expense of US. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is dependent on your perspective.
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.
Originally published in War on the Rocks
This written submission to the Dutch Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee was accompanied by both an oral presentation and also responses to questions posed by Committee members on Dutch non-lethal assistance to Syrian rebel groups during the civil war.
The administration just slashed the number of refugees the U.S. will admit to a record low. Its reasoning doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Originally published in Politico