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Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?
Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?
The Fragility of Northern Syria
The Fragility of Northern Syria
Women survey the damage near the MSF-supported Al Quds hospital, hit by airstrikes in an opposition-held area of Aleppo on 27 April 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?

The fragile Cessation of Hostilities in Syria, in place since 27 February, has unraveled in the north over the last few weeks, as fighting escalated around the strategic city of Aleppo. Forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allied Iran-backed foreign fighters mounted a new offensive aimed at encircling the armed opposition in Aleppo, the most valuable piece of northern territory currently dominated by non-jihadist rebel factions. Rebel forces have counter-attacked. Rising violence and meagre progress in delivering humanitarian supplies to besieged areas have hampered any meaningful progress at the Geneva peace talks. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura held a series of urgent meetings this week with diplomats and foreign ministers from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Russia to revive the truce, alongside high-level bilateral talks between the U.S. and Russia toward the same end.

In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Syria, Noah Bonsey, looks at what is at stake.

The U.S. and Russia today announced that they have concluded arrangements to extend the Cessation of Hostilities to embattled Aleppo province, which follows earlier efforts to establish a “regime of calm” aimed at decreasing violence in the capital, Damascus, and the western coastal region of Latakia. How far would this go toward salvaging the truce?

The Cessation of Hostilities needs to be nationwide in order to be viable; or, to be more precise, it needs to include all areas not controlled by the Islamic State. It doesn’t work to pick small parts of the country as truce areas while excluding other key fronts, because doing so can simply enable the regime to divert resources from areas under truce toward escalation elsewhere. In theory, the opposition can do the same, though in practice it’s only the regime and its backers that have shown much capacity for that kind of coordinated, cross-front force movement.

The diplomatic focus is and should be on stopping the escalatory cycle of violence in Aleppo, where both sides have been attacking civilian areas indiscriminately. Regime attacks have been more systematic and had deadlier impact, but Aleppo has also seen a troubling surge in indiscriminate rocket fire by rebel groups since the Cessation of Hostilities began to break down.

It’s too early to say what, if anything, the U.S.-Russia negotiations can deliver in Aleppo. Arresting the cycle of violence on this front is a huge challenge, particularly given the extent to which the Assad regime is prioritizing the Aleppo campaign and the level of Iranian support for it. Are the Russians willing to apply real pressure in an attempt to stop the regime’s offensive there? If they are willing to apply that pressure, are they capable of actually achieving a halt in the offensive? These questions remain. But there isn’t much point returning to talks in Geneva at this stage if the escalatory cycle in Aleppo can’t be stopped.

Why is Aleppo so important?

Aleppo has historically been Syria’s economic capital and, prior to the war, was its largest city. Strategically and symbolically, it is the non-jihadist opposition’s most significant territorial asset — arguably the one place in northern Syria where the intra-rebel balance of power is clearly in their favour. Jabhat al-Nusra has some assets there, but it’s the non-jihadist groups that are dominant within rebel-held portions of the city and its northern and western countryside.

Since 2014, these rebels have faced an existential threat at the hands of two foes: regime forces aiming to surround the city, and IS forces poised to sweep through the neighboring countryside from the east. More recently, Kurdish YPG forces have added additional pressure from the northwest, and from the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood they control within Aleppo. As Crisis Group has long maintained, the defeat of non-jihadist opposition factions in Aleppo could deal a potentially crippling blow to the viability of the mainstream opposition as a whole, and thus to any prospect of a political resolution. That outcome, while perhaps favourable to the regime in the short term, would be otherwise disastrous: it would leave Syria in a state of unending war between a regime too weak, brutal and stubborn to stabilize much of the country, and Salafi-jihadist groups – namely the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra – willing and able to wage perpetual insurgency against it, reinforced by some of the rank and file of losing non-jihadist rebel groups. Jihadist groups would likely exploit the regime’s inevitably heavy-handed response to ongoing insurgent attacks to augment their recruitment within Syria and beyond.

What do you make of the announcement of a new Russian-U.S. monitoring center in Geneva to oversee ceasefire violations in Syria?

Improving monitoring mechanisms is all well and good, but does not in itself address the underlying dynamics fueling escalation. The cessation of hostilities did not break down because of a failure in monitoring. It broke down because major forces on both sides had a clear interest in eroding the truce and resuming hostilities.

The Cessation of Hostilities was accomplished in the first place primarily by U.S. and Russian bilateral negotiations. The central challenge was always the commitment of the main warring parties on both sides. The U.S. was able to convince the non-jihadist armed opposition and its regional backers to go along with the truce. That’s not surprising given that the tide of the war at that point was working against the armed opposition, so they had incentive to go for de-escalation. What was always less clear is why the regime, Iran, and Iran-backed militias – including Hizbullah and other Shiite foreign fighters – would be interested in a Cessation of Hostilities, given that they had the upper hand and the momentum in military terms.

Another party that had no apparent interest in a Cessation was Jabhat al-Nusra [the local al-Qaeda affiliate], for two reasons. First, the terms of the cessation allowed for continued attacks targeting Nusra. Second, de-escalating violence and turning attention to a political track brought out key strategic and ideological differences separating Jabhat al-Nusra from non-jihadist rebel factions, and created space for pro-opposition civilian activists to resume public demonstrations. Jabhat al-Nusra does not want a political solution — they have broader maximalist, transnational goals better served by perpetual war. And they clearly wish to avoid the re-emergence of civil society on the ground, much of which is hostile to Nusra’s ideology and in some cases allied with its non-jihadist rebel rivals.

So you have a situation in which some of the key actors on the ground – the regime, Iran, Hizbollah, and other Iran-backed militias on one side, and Jabhat al-Nusra on the opposition side – had reason to prefer re-escalation to a continued Cessation of Hostilities. The surprise then is not that the truce broke down, but rather that it lasted as long as it did.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for the separation of moderate opposition forces from positions occupied by militias loyal to Jabhat al-Nusra. How realistic is that?

Separating Nusra from other factions is much more complicated than Russian talking points suggest.

Nusra personnel are in some cases co-located and working in cooperation with non-jihadist rebels, including in areas, such as Aleppo, where the latter are the dominant force. That relationship has continued even as tensions between Nusra and non-jihadist factions have steadily risen over the last year, because the demands of the war provide powerful incentives for it.

Non-jihadist opposition factions face a regime that is far better equipped—not least of all with an air force—and receives much more robust, better-coordinated support from its state backers. There are major ideological, political and strategic differences distinguishing these opposition factions from Jabhat al-Nusra, but for now these are outweighed by the tactical necessity of coordination against a common foe. Nusra provides capacity that non-jihadist factions sorely need to help compensate for the regime’s armament advantage; for example, Nusra conducts suicide attacks against regime armour, while non-jihadist factions do not.

The non-jihadist factions, including major Islamist groups, who participate in opposition politics have defined a desired political endgame focused on ending Assad rule, while maintaining Syria’s current borders, preserving much of existing state institutions, and ensuring political and religious pluralism. Jabhat al-Nusra’s Salafi-jihadist core shares the objective of pushing Assad from power, but rejects the rest of that opposition platform on ideological and strategic grounds. If there is ever a viable political process offering a credible prospect of ending Assad rule, these and other differences distinguishing non-jihadist forces from al-Nusra’s hardline leadership will come to the fore, and are likely to prove irreconcilable.

But what is happening now in Geneva does not constitute such a process. The regime has made clear that it will not willingly negotiate towards a meaningful political transition, and its backers, Russia and Iran, so far have shown no sign that they will force it to do so. Meanwhile, the regime and Iran-backed foreign fighters are escalating against opposition forces on the key Aleppo front — an offensive they prepared for during the cessation of hostilities. These circumstances — rising military pressure, combined with dim prospects for tangible political progress — incentivize further cooperation between opposition and Nusra forces, rather than driving them apart.

Why have hospitals and medical facilities been targeted during the latest military offensive in Aleppo?

Collective punishment against civilians in opposition areas has been a pillar of the regime’s strategy from the beginning of this war. We see that in indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian areas; we see that in sieges of populated areas that in some cases have resulted in deaths from starvation; and we see that in attacks targeting markets and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and other health facilities. These tactics are part of an effort to raise the cost of opposition to the regime – and, in some cases, to depopulate these areas.

Up until now, the regime has faced no negative consequences from this element of its strategy. To the contrary, it has profited from it, as these tactics have helped it to crush, displace or co-opt opponents on key fronts. And so long as the regime sees little prospect of counter-escalation by its external adversaries, nor meaningful pressure from its own external backers, then of course it will likely continue to use such tactics.

Is the Cessation of Hostilities worth salvaging?

Yes. The impact of the truce, first and foremost, was a significant decline in violence in much of the country, and a decline in civilian casualties as a result. The most tangible difference in terms of civilian life was a significant reduction in regime and Russian bombardment, in particular air strikes, on opposition-held areas. The opposition in turn ceased most of its attacks. That created a level of calm that Syrians had not experienced in some time.

In opposition areas, in addition to the lives saved, you saw that the calm in violence created space for a return of civil activists to the streets. There were peaceful protests on a scale and scope unlike anything we’ve seen over the last couple of years. These were mostly protests against the regime, but there were even protests against Jabhat al-Nusra. This is indicative of the fact that a calm in the fighting – and in particular, a decline in the bombardment of opposition areas – was creating space for civil actors, and this posed a threat to the most hardline groups, namely Nusra.

Securing a meaningful, nationwide Cessation of Hostilities that includes all areas outside Islamic State control would save lives and prevent the complete collapse of the nascent political process. If the relevant powers — in particular, Russia, the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — fail to arrest this current escalatory cycle, then prospects for achieving a negotiated end to the conflict will fall further, and the transnational threats resulting from radicalization and displacement will worsen.

The Fragility of Northern Syria

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.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 – Spring Edition.

With global attention focused on fighting a deadly pandemic, the security situation in northern Syria remains fragile and could break down at any time. In the north east, erratic U.S. decision-making in 2019 enabled a Turkish incursion that in turn put local anti-ISIS efforts in jeopardy. The arrival of COVID-19 is further threatening the precarious status quo. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of Kurdish, Arab and Syriac militias under the leadership of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), exercises tenuous control over the area. Between leading operations to smash ISIS cells, holding off pro-Turkish forces and guarding prisons housing ISIS fighters, it is already stretched thin. The SDF’s capacities may crumble if the pandemic hits the north east in full force. On 30 March, and again on 2 May, ISIS detainees overpowered guards and took over an entire floor of a prison compound in the provincial capital Hassakeh before SDF personnel were able to quell the uprising.

Idlib is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy.

In the north west, Idlib presents another conundrum. The last stronghold of Syrian rebels and jihadists, the province is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy. A Russian-backed regime offensive has squeezed the rebels and displaced hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians, many crowding at the Turkish border. Turkish-Russian ceasefires in Idlib have broken down time and again. The latest one, concluded in March, is holding thus far, but it bears all its predecessors’ flaws and is therefore also prone to erode. The spectre of COVID-19 makes a more permanent ceasefire in Idlib all the more urgent, since only concerted international action at a time of relative calm can contain the contagion. The offensive has all but destroyed Idlib’s health care sector, and an outbreak could prove disastrous.

European capitals have a strong interest in helping mitigate Syria’s humanitarian disaster, while keeping ISIS at bay. As such, the EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Contribute additional funding and protection for SDF detention centres holding foreign fighters. The EU and member states should also offer the SDF technical and financial assistance to enhance its capacity to prosecute Syrian ISIS members in its custody or under its control. In addition, they should aid SDF efforts to reintegrate released and former ISIS members into their communities in Syria.
     
  • Revitalise its approach to stabilising the north east by supporting civilian-military governance structures in which local Arab authorities play a central role in predominantly Arab areas. Establishing such structures would require giving the SDF incentives to devolve authority to local governing bodies, including their security services, to avoid an anti-SDF and anti-Kurdish backlash from which ISIS would benefit.
     
  • Maintain diplomatic pressure on the SDF and Turkey to commit to a humanitarian truce in north-eastern Syria. While the SDF has publicly endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in the face of the pandemic, there has been intermittent fighting between the SDF and Turkey (and Turkish proxies) along the front lines, diverting resources from the campaign against ISIS and causing civilian casualties.
     
  • Continue humanitarian preparations in the event of a regime attack on Idlib and/or the full outbreak of COVID-19. Plan and build aid infrastructure; pre-position assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
     
  • Support the COVID-19 response in both the north east and north west, including by increasing humanitarian aid and delivering personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators.

The North East

In March, ISIS called on its members to take advantage of COVID-19’s spread to intensify their global war. While there have been no major security breakdowns in north-eastern Syria to date, sporadic incidents of violence raise concerns about the jihadist group’s remaining presence. ISIS has maintained a drumbeat of low-level attacks across the region, despite being geographically and organisationally fractured. It has shown a certain resilience, notwithstanding its territorial defeat and the loss of its top leadership. Its fighters have carried out roadside bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations targeting local Arab SDF elements, in particular. Its cells have also coalesced to set up checkpoints and extort money from traders crossing Syria’s eastern desert.

Such attacks aim to weaken the SDF and to terrorise the local population into non-cooperation with the authorities. Fear of ISIS retribution has harmed the SDF’s ability to gather intelligence necessary for effective counter-insurgency measures. Residents attribute the persistence of ISIS activities partly to lack of popular confidence in a sustained U.S. troop presence in eastern Syria. ISIS cells have also benefited from mistrust between locals and the SDF – exacerbated by the exclusion of local Arab leaders from decision-making – which gives the militants room to operate among the population. It remains unclear whether ISIS will be able to further reconstitute its local support at a time when the SDF’s focus is elsewhere.

The SDF’s reduced military capacity as a result of the Turkish offensive raises questions about whether it can keep guarding ISIS detainees. In an audio recording released in September 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exhorted his followers to free ISIS detainees and their families from prisons and camps. The group lately renewed this call, arguing that the coronavirus is diverting the attention of governments or groups holding them. On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted in a prison in Hassakeh city, wresting control of a whole floor from the facility’s guards. It took nearly a day for the SDF to regain the upper hand and determine that no prisoners had escaped. SDF authorities later explained that inmates had revolted partly because they feared contracting the illness in such cramped quarters. On 2 May, ISIS prisoners took control of another SDF-run detention facility in Hassakeh; the SDF and detainees negotiated an end to the standoff a day later.

Following these events, the SDF is rightly concerned that ISIS could raid its makeshift jails in conjunction with prisoner riots to enable mass escapes. This threat will become all the more serious if COVID-19 starts to spread rapidly and uncontrollably. The prospect that something similar could happen in al-Hol detention camp, which holds over 60,000 ISIS-related women and children and where tensions flared regularly between militant women and guards even before the pandemic outbreak, is extremely worrying. Renewed fighting between Turkey and the SDF on Syria’s northern border would only worsen these problems.

The North West

Backed by Russian airpower, the Syrian regime has pursued an incremental military strategy for reclaiming the rebel-held north west. Its campaign escalated in April 2019; by March 2020, it had left over a million Syrians displaced. Russian warplanes have compensated for the regime’s weaknesses in ground warfare, driving the human toll way up. The combined air and artillery attacks ravaged towns and villages, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the province’s northern reaches. At least 1,700 civilians were reportedly killed in these strikes. With over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) on its border with Syria, Turkey followed through on a threat to open its European frontiers, allowing migrants and refugees to pass into Greece, and thus sending the message that it would not shoulder a new refugee burden on its own.

Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire remains at great risk of falling apart.

On 5 March, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia agreed on a new cessation of hostilities in Idlib, establishing a “security corridor” extending 6km on each side of the M4 Aleppo-Latakia highway, an area under rebel control, to be patrolled jointly by Russian and Turkish soldiers. The agreement froze the conflict along the new front line, letting the regime hold onto many areas it had retaken in the latest offensive, and leaving civilians who fled the conflict with no prospect of returning to their towns and villages. Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire, like those that came before it, remains at great risk of falling apart.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The entirety of northern Syria remains vulnerable to renewed conflict. In the north east, the EU and its member states should continue to offer much needed support to the SDF to allow it to weather the crisis and remain an effective anti-ISIS force. Building on EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s call for an immediate and nationwide ceasefire across Syria, the EU and its member states should put diplomatic pressure on their Turkish allies and Kurdish partners to commit to a truce that could allow all parties to focus on fighting the pandemic. They should accompany this request with humanitarian aid to help the SDF respond to a coronavirus outbreak if and when it accelerates.

The EU will also need to do more to share the burden with Turkey in north-western Syria.

The EU is one of the largest humanitarian donors in the Middle East. Support for Syrian refugees in the region is one of the short-term priorities in the EU’s Team Europe program responding to COVID-19. On 30 March, it committed support to countries hosting Syrian refugees – Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – to help them fight the pandemic. While this step is welcome, they should equally make sure to provide assistance inside Syria, particularly in Idlib, including support directed toward health and education. The Brussels Conference scheduled for the end of June, “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, will be an opportunity to mobilise European and other donors to pledge further aid to civilians in Idlib, especially in light of the coronavirus threat. The EU and its member states could also offer direct support to grassroots organisations working in Idlib and encourage EU-funded organisations to focus their efforts on that area. While EU-Turkey relations are strained, Ankara and Brussels should use their renewed diplomatic engagement – triggered by the regime offensive – to preserve and strengthen the ceasefire in Idlib as an immediate priority. European states should continue to back Turkish efforts to maintain a ceasefire in Idlib, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. They should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria-related matters.