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.
Disease has long been a daily concern at al-Hol, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria for families of ISIS militants, but now each death raises anxiety about COVID-19. With repatriations on hold, the UN and other international bodies must step up medical and humanitarian aid.
Turkey and Russia agreed temporary ceasefire in Idlib province in north west halting most fighting and freezing regime offensive toward Idlib city, but jihadist attack on Turkish convoy in Idlib sparked clash between jihadists and rebels; from mid-March authorities took measures to slow spread of COVID-19. Turkish President Erdoğan and Russian President Putin met in Moscow 5 March and agreed to halt hostilities in Idlib along current front lines, allowing Syrian regime forces to keep control over areas taken during offensives in Feb and remain within striking distance of Idlib city. Deal includes creation of “security corridor” running along M4 highway between Latakia and Aleppo and extending 6km either side and launch of joint Turkish-Russian patrols along highway. Protesters 15 and 23 March forced joint patrols to turn around. Pro-opposition media 19 March reported that al-Qaeda aligned group Hurras al-Din attacked Turkish forces on M4 highway; attack sparked clashes between militants of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and unidentified group along road. Turkish Defence Ministry confirmed earlier rocket attack by unnamed “radical group” along M4 highway killed two Turkish soldiers. In response to COVID-19 crisis, President Assad 14 March postponed parliamentary elections scheduled for 13 April to 20 May and closed schools, mosques and several public offices; govt 23 March also closed border with Lebanon. In north west, Turkish-aligned opposition authorities Syrian Interim Govt took steps mid-March to slow and monitor spread of COVID-19 and opened three quarantine centres. In north east, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) 23 March closed all crossings into govt-controlled territory to reduce COVID-19 spread; 24 March endorsed UN Sec-Gen’s call for humanitarian ceasefire to combat virus. Islamic State (ISIS) detainees 29-30 March rioted in prison in Hasakah city; militants gained control of areas of prison and attempted to break out. SDF 30 March reported four escaped detainees had been captured. Govt 31 March announced interception of Israeli missiles targeting Al-Shayrat airbase in Homs province (centre).
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.
Tens of thousands of foreign men, women and children affiliated with ISIS are detained in northeast Syria. The camps where they are held pose a formidable security and humanitarian challenge to the region. Western governments should, at minimum, accelerate the repatriation of women and children.
Once again, the Islamic State may be poised to recover from defeat in its original bases of Iraq and Syria. It is still possible, however, for the jihadist group’s many foes to nip its regrowth in the bud.
The U.S. decision to leave troops in north-eastern Syria has bought the area time but not lasting stability. Washington should press its Kurdish YPG allies to loosen their PKK ties – lest Ankara intervene – and stop obstructing their autonomy talks with Damascus.
[...] this is an effort to minimize offending Moscow that reflects the fact that U.N. officials believe that continued cooperation with Russia is key to the future of humanitarian operations in Syria.
As the Syrian economy continues to deteriorate and violence escalates, fewer and fewer families will be able to access even the nominally available public care.
[The Syrian civilian population] think it’s suicidal to move toward the regime, or at best, it’s unknown.
These [Turkish and Russian] patrols are meant to be politically symbolic, demonstrating both countries’ ability to cut through rebel-controlled Idlib and secure the highway.
Getting out [of Idlib] altogether, allowing the refugees to come into Turkey and letting Assad take that space is not an idea that’s going to resonate with Turkish society.
Russia can help the Syrian regime crush Idlib if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory. If it hopes to spare itself that cost it needs to strike a new agreement to which HTS is a counterparty.
A deadly attack on Turkish forces in Syria has brought Idlib’s crisis to a dangerous crossroads. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Turkey, Syria and Russia experts explain what happened and what’s at stake.
The Syrian regime’s deliberate but devastating campaign to retake Idlib has picked up in intensity, threatening death and displacement at levels unseen in Syria’s conflict, terrible as it has been to date. Damascus and its Russian backers must conclude an immediate ceasefire with rebel forces.
1,450 ISIS-affiliated European nationals are being held in camps in Syria, where they suffer from squalor and violence. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU member states to take responsibility for their nationals and bring them home – starting with children and women.
On 12 January 2020, the Editorial Board of the Washington Post cited International Crisis Group's recommendation of pursuing a “Women and Children First” policy in repatriating Western ISIS affiliates – and warned about the risks to humanitarian values and security of failing to do so.
Originally published in Washington Post