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.
Jihadists took control of Idlib in north west straining Russia-Turkey deal holding off govt assault on opposition stronghold, rise in Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Iran-allied targets in south west provoked retaliation, and U.S. sought assurances from Turkey it would not attack Kurdish fighters in north east when U.S. troops pull out. In Idlib in north west, clashes between jihadist alliance Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and rival rebel faction Nour al-Din al-Zinki erupted 1 Jan, with Turkish-backed rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham joining against HTS. HTS defeated Nour al-Din al-Zinki by 4 Jan and imposed civilian Salvation Govt, which it controls, in captured areas. HTS 10 Jan reached settlement with Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham, which conceded HTS authority. Turkish President Erdoğan and Russian President Putin in Moscow 23 Jan agreed on closer military cooperation in Idlib, but Putin reaffirmed Russia’s support for dialogue between Damascus and Kurds. In response to what govt called “terrorist violations” of truce in southern Idlib, army 29 Jan shelled Maarat al-Numan killing at least eleven civilians. Tensions rose in south: Israel carried out airstrikes against installations it said Iran and pro-Iranian militias were using south of Damascus 25 Dec and 11 and 20 Jan. In apparent retaliation, missile fired allegedly by Iranian forces 20 Jan at Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israel responded with another airstrike 21 Jan targeting Iranian Al-Quds Force, reportedly killing twelve. Following President Trump’s announcement in Dec that U.S. troops would withdraw, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton 6 Jan conditioned withdrawal on Turkey guaranteeing it would not attack “Kurdish fighters”; Turkey condemned remarks. Turkey 13 Jan deployed tanks and armoured vehicles to districts on border with Syria. After Trump 13 Jan tweeted that U.S. “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit the Kurds”, he and Erdoğan 14 Jan had phone call on possible twenty-mile-wide “safe zone” in north east along Turkish border. Syrian Kurds and Syrian govt rejected Turkish control over potential “safe zone”. Turkey reportedly sought Russian permission to use Syrian airspace for possible operation in north east against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – backbone of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Russian FM Lavrov 16 Jan said northern territories should return to Syrian govt control. Kurds continued to explore political settlement with Syrian govt including integration of YPG into Syrian armed forces. Suicide attack claimed by Islamic State (ISIS) in Manbij 16 Jan killed sixteen, including four U.S. personnel. Another suicide attack targeting U.S. troops and Syrian partners in Hassakeh 21 Jan caused no casualties.
Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, half of whom are under eighteen. Despite European aid, tensions are rising as the country strains to accommodate the influx. The answer is smarter integration policies aimed particularly at meeting the needs of vulnerable youth.
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.
Since February 2018, the Israeli-Iranian conflict visibly is no longer ‘cold'.
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.
It’s easy to see why Britons are hostile to a teenage girl who went to Syria. But barring the door would feed the next round of jihadist recruiting.
Originally published in Bloomberg
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.