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.
Russia’s proposal for humanitarian corridors for Eastern Ghouta and Rukban camp have little chance of mitigating suffering there. Instead, Moscow should push for a negotiated resolution of Eastern Ghouta through UN Security Council Resolution 2401 and secure normal aid agency access to Rukban, thereby enhancing its credibility as a mediator.
Regime intensified bombing of rebel-held Damascus suburb and, with Turkey expanding and entrenching its position in north west, U.S. and Russian-aligned forces clashing in east and Israel and Iran-aligned forces in south, Feb saw marked internationalisation of conflict, increasing risk of regional escalation in March. In Damascus, regime 18 Feb escalated aerial bombardment of Eastern Ghouta; over 580 civilians reported killed 18-27 Feb and rebel shelling killed at least seventeen civilians in regime-held areas of city. UN Security Council’s 24 Feb resolution demanding 30-day countrywide ceasefire went unheeded. Russia called for daily five-hour local truces in Eastern Ghouta from 27 Feb to allow humanitarian access; pro-regime bombing and rebel retaliatory shelling continued 27 Feb, regime halted airstrikes during five-hour truce 28 Feb but resumed afterwards and launched ground offensive on enclave’s eastern edge. In north west, Turkey and allied rebels continued offensive against Kurdish-held Afrin enclave, expanding narrow zone of control along its edge. Amid negotiations between Kurds and govt over Afrin’s defence, govt-aligned forces 20 Feb entered enclave to help repel Turkish assault, but do not appear to have slowed Turkish gains. U.S. increased visible military presence in Kurdish-controlled Manbij, about 100km east of Afrin, which Turkey has repeatedly threatened to attack unless Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) withdraw from city. Following mid-Feb visit to Turkey by U.S. Sec State Tillerson, U.S. and Turkey agreed to form working group to address points of contention, particularly Manbij. Regime halted offensive against rebels east of Idlib province after Turkey 5 Feb started deploying additional de-escalation control forces along front lines between govt and rebels, coordinating move with Russia and jihadist alliance Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Islamist group Noureddine al-Zenki 20 Feb attacked HTS in western part of Aleppo province, inflicting heavy losses late Feb. In Deir al-Zour province in east, U.S. forces 7 Feb repelled offensive by pro-regime forces across Euphrates River, which marks de-confliction line separating U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and govt-aligned forces backed by Russia and Iran; U.S. strikes reportedly killed over 100, including many Russian mercenaries. U.S. airstrikes 25 Feb on Islamic State (ISIS)-held Al Shaafah village, Deir al-Zour, reportedly killed 25 civilians. After Iranian drone allegedly entered Israeli airspace from Syria 10 Feb, Israeli jets carried out retaliatory raid on alleged Iranian drone control site in Syria; govt anti-aircraft missile shot down returning Israeli jet; Israel launched second raid against govt and Iranian targets. Israeli PM Netanyahu 18 Feb warned Israel would “if necessary” act against Iran itself, not just its proxies.
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.
The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliates face a stark choice: risk their gains in northern Syria through continued prioritisation of the PKK's fight against Turkey, or pursue local self-rule in the area they have carved out of the chaos of the Syrian war.
The U.S. campaign against ISIS in northern Syria both benefits from and is complicated by its partnership with an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group fighting against its NATO ally Turkey. The challenges will grow as the war on ISIS moves further east.
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.
Russia needs both the Syrian regime and Turkey. So it has to give a little bit to both and it has to ... make them equally angry, if that's what it wants.
What's happening now is that the Syrian regime is trying to regain control over as large an area as possible. At the same time, other regional conflicts involving Syria are having a greater impact.
The YPG is an integral part of the PKK command structure. They may be mostly Syrians, though not exclusively, but all are part of the PKK.
In the end [Moscow] will want a political solution in Syria, and economic reconstruction. For that they will need European input and money and investment.
Turkey has tried to drive wedges into [Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)] because they see [the group] as very problematic.
It’s fair to say the U.S. policy options in Syria were never good and never easy, and they’ve gotten steadily worse and harder as the war has gone on.
Joost Hiltermann, Crisis Group's Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa talks about a new phase in Syria’s war that augurs escalation with Israel.
Originally published in Lowy Institute
Sultangazi is home to a mix of religious and ethnic groups – as well as 50,000 Syrian refugees. The district received the refugees warmly. But resentment is rising, as public services suffer and opposition forces suspect the ruling party of using refugees to exacerbate social divisions.
How can the dizzying changes, intersecting crises and multiplying conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab uprisings be best understood, let alone responded to? This long-form commentary by MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann and our team steps back for a better look and proposes new approaches.
While announcing an end to the Syrian civil war is grossly premature, it nevertheless has become clear over the past year that the conflict has started to wind down, owing to the military commitments of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and largely on the Assad regime’s terms.
Originally published in Valdai Club