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.
After taking control of last opposition-held areas in south west, pro-govt forces intensified efforts to retake north west, raising risk of further escalation there in Sept. In north west, amid reports that govt was increasing troops in area, army 9 Aug dropped fliers in rebel-held areas of Idlib province urging people to surrender. Next day govt carried out dozens of airstrikes in Hama, Idlib and Aleppo provinces, killing at least 29 people; most intense bombing in months. UN 30 Aug called on Russia, Iran and Turkey to hold off govt campaign in north west. In south west, as pro-govt forces took last pockets of territory from Islamic State (ISIS)-affiliated militants, Jordanian army said it had shelled ISIS militants in Syria 31 July-1 Aug as they approached Jordanian border, killing some. Israel said its airstrike in Syrian-held part of Golan Heights killed seven ISIS-affiliated militants night of 1-2 Aug. Russian envoy to Syria 1 Aug reportedly said Iranian forces in Syria had withdrawn their heavy weapons at least 85km from Israeli-held Golan Heights; Israel said it was not enough, demanding Iranian-backed forces leave Syria. Iran 28 Aug said it would maintain military presence in Syria as part of cooperation agreement with Syria that Iranian defence minister signed during Damascus visit 26-27 Aug. Russia said its military police and UN peacekeepers 2 Aug began patrols in Golan Heights and that to prevent “provocations against UN posts” its military police would set up eight observation posts there, to be handed over to Syrian army once situation stable. In east, opposition Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by U.S.-led coalition continued efforts to retake ISIS-held pockets. ISIS attacked army position near Deir al-Zour city 15 Aug, twelve soldiers and five militants reportedly killed. Iraq 16 Aug said its airstrike in Syria killed ISIS militants planning attacks in Iraq. UN 13 Aug estimated up to 30,000 ISIS militants remained in Syria and Iraq, about half in each country. Syrian Democratic Council, SDF’s political wing, went to Damascus early Aug for second round of talks with govt; increase in contact has yet to yield tangible results.
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 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
Crisis Group's Middle East & North Africa Program Director Joost Hiltermann participated in the 2018 Körber Policy Game, designed to explore possible outcomes in the event of a crisis between Turkey and the West in Syria. While the exercise underscored many of the Syrian conflict's complexities, it also revealed that a strong desire by stakeholders to find common ground can help overcome them.
Crisis Group’s second update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on seizing a chance for peace in Mali, avoiding escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, mitigating conflict in Syria’s peripheral regions, and helping Somalia overcome obstacles to reform. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.
Originally published in The Times of Israel