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.
After weeks of escalatory rhetoric, Russia has partnered with Turkey in a deal to avert an all-out assault on Idlib, the last stronghold of Syria’s armed rebellion. International actors seeking to end the Syrian war should embrace the agreement.
Russia and Turkey maintained that their Sept agreement to stave off govt offensive on rebel-held Idlib in north west continued to hold despite tit-for-tat attacks between govt-aligned forces and rebels. Notably, govt forces 9 Nov bombed Jarjanaz, killing eight residents and two dozen fighters from rebel faction Jaish al-Izzah. Jihadist alliance Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Turkish-backed National Liberation Front allegedly carried strikes on Syrian military positions in retaliation for govt bombings. Rebel group Wa-Harrid al-Mumineen (which includes al-Qaeda loyalist HTS splinter Hurras al-Din and other jihadist hardliners) continued to claim small-scale attacks on govt positions in Lattakia, Hama and southern Aleppo countryside. Gas attack on Aleppo 24 Nov injured about 100 people; Syrian army and Russia blaming rebels 25 Nov retaliated with airstrikes in buffer zone, rebels denied responsibility. Russian officials expressed satisfaction with Turkish efforts to implement deal but increasingly highlighted violations of ceasefire inside Idlib zone. In south, authorities arrested increasing numbers of former rebels, including those acquitted of any crimes by “settlement” procedures; former rebels and families appealed to Russian military police to secure rebels’ release. Also in south, Russian-supported govt-aligned forces, that included reconciled rebel fighters, by 17 Nov drove hundreds of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters further into desert east of Sweida. In rebel-held north east, Turkey 1 Nov shelled Kurdish-controlled towns of Kobani and Tell Abyad; in response, opposition Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – of which Kurdish YPG forms military backbone – suspended operations against ISIS in its remaining strongholds around Hajin in lower Euphrates valley. Month saw spate of unclaimed killings of SDF members; ISIS 3 Nov claimed assassination of Sheikh Bashir Faisal al-Huwaidi, Arab member of Raqqa governing council and SDF ally, but responsibility unclear. After “intensive diplomatic efforts” by U.S.-led coalition, SDF 11 Nov resumed offensive against ISIS. ISIS counterattack 23-27 Nov killed 92 SDF members, heaviest loss since SDF’s 2015 creation. In new round of talks in Kazakh capital Astana 28 Nov, Russia, Turkey and Iran failed to reach agreement on establishment of constitutional committee. Jordanian parliamentary delegation 19 Nov visited Syrian President Assad for first time since 2011 to discuss cooperation in trade, tourism and transport; including reopening of Ramtha-Daraa border, shut for seven years.
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.
Host community hostility toward Syrian refugees is on the rise in Turkey’s metropolitan areas. In order to defuse tensions and mitigate rising intercommunal tensions, Ankara and its international partners should support long-term strategies for the Syrians’ sustainable integration.
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.
Jusque-là, les Russes sont restés relativement passifs et ont laissé les Israéliens bombarder plusieurs positions en Syrie. Mais avec l’avancée significative de Bachar Al Assad, dans la région, leur calcul a changé, les Russes veulent rétablir la stabilité du régime. Ils pourraient bien considérer la prochaine frappe israélienne comme une violation du territoire syrien et, dans ce cas, les conséquences seront difficiles à prévoir.
We are entering a new stage of the relationship with Russia and Israel as it comes to Syria, and we will see more divergences. If Israel does not find a way to drive a wedge between the Iranians and the Syrians in the long term, then, whether in a few weeks, or a few months, the Iranians will return to south-west Syria.
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