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.
15 March marks the Syrian uprising’s tenth anniversary. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Syria expert Dareen Khalifa says that with a political solution out of reach, consolidating the existing ceasefires and alleviating human suffering is the best possible way forward for now.
Country marked 10 years since uprising as Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces clashed in north east, Idlib attacks strained Russia-Turkey ceasefire, and govt forces fought former opposition in south west. In north east, Turkish-backed armed groups and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) 16-17 and 19-21 March clashed in Ain Issa countryside, reportedly prompting Turkey to launch airstrike – its first in 17 months in north east – on Saida village 20 March. In Idlib province in north west, March 2020 ceasefire largely continued to hold despite reported Russian airstrikes. Notably, regime forces 5 March launched rocket on Bzapour town, reportedly killing three civilians; Russian airstrike 21 March reportedly targeted Sarmada city and suspected Russian missile attack same day struck Qah city near refugee camp. Turkey 25 March said it had agreed with Russia to “take measures to hold ceasefire” in Idlib province. In Aleppo governorate, suspected Russian missile attacks 5 March reportedly killed four near Jarablus and al-Bab cities. Russian artillery 21 March hit hospital in rebel-held Atareb city west of Aleppo, reportedly killing at least six civilians and wounding 16 others, including 5 health workers. In Daraa province in south west, amid govt efforts to reassert security control, gunmen loyal to former opposition commander known as Abu Tariq Al-Subaihi 16 March ambushed govt troops who sought to capture him; 21 soldiers and unknown number of gunmen killed. In central desert, Russia continued to launch airstrikes against suspected Islamic State (ISIS) targets throughout month, notably killing dozens of militants 6-16 March. In Deir Ez-Zor province, ISIS reportedly killed nine Iran-backed militiamen 12, 21 March in al-Mayadin area. To mark tenth anniversary of 2011 uprising, thousands took to streets in Idlib city 15 March and hundreds reportedly gathered in Daraa city 18 March, chanting anti-regime slogans. UK, France, Germany, Italy and U.S. 15 March issued joint statement renewing commitment to holding regime accountable for its crimes. United Arab Emirates 9 March called for reinstatement of Syria in Arab League. Israel next day reportedly launched missiles on Iran-linked targets in southern outskirts of Damascus.
With the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib paused, the time is now for a deal sparing the rebellion’s last stronghold the full wrath of reconquest. The parties should pursue an improved ceasefire including the regime, Russia, Turkey and the Islamist militants entrenched in the province.
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.
La direction du mouvement [HTC en Syrie] s’efforce désormais de régler ces problèmes. La manière dont elle se comporte vis-à-vis des minorités est en train de changer.
La meilleure des pires options qui se posent aujourd'hui [en Syrie], c'est une impasse prolongée.
The [recent] U.S. [air strikes in Syria were] aimed at a relatively insignificant target in an area where Iran's hands are somewhat tied.
The people who have been released [from detention camps in Syria] are struggling to reintegrate, and the economic situation outside is already very bad.
It seems that what is left of ISIS networks now is that they are getting organized in smaller groups of five or six people who may not be connected to each other even.
The Kurdish leadership has every reason to suspect that Russia will not push Damascus to accept anything that Turkey might interpret as protecting or legitimizing the YPG.
A sudden U.S. troop pull-out from north east Syria could prompt a humanitarian crisis, an Islamic State resurgence and renewed conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces, especially its Kurdish component. The U.S. should commit to an eventual, gradual and conditional withdrawal that protects civilians.
Sanctions on Syria aim to protect Syrian civilians from the regime but may end up hurting them instead. Washington should further clarify humanitarian exemptions, specify benchmarks related to civilian protection and offer temporary easing of sanctions as long as these are met.
A full-blown COVID-19 outbreak may trigger a greater human catastrophe in northern Syria, where ISIS activity persists and Idlib’s peace remains ever-fragile. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support a stronger ceasefire in Idlib and increase assistance to health and governance structures to keep COVID-19 and ISIS in check.