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Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib
Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib
A man gestures as people rush to a site hit by what activists said was heavy shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, on 16 June 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Report 163 / Middle East & North Africa

New Approach in Southern Syria

Syria’s civil war is stuck in a vicious cycle, and the U.S. is best placed to change the appalling status quo. Washington should take advantage of opportunities in southern Syria to launch a new policy to improve the chance of a political settlement, chiefly by deterring regime aerial attacks on rebel-held civilian areas.

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Executive Summary

The Syrian war rages on, its devastating civilian toll rising with no viable political solution in sight. Diplomacy is stymied by the warring parties’ uncompromising positions, reinforced by political deadlock between their external backers. The U.S. is best placed to transform the status quo. A significant but realistic policy shift focused on dissuading, deterring or otherwise preventing the regime from conducting aerial attacks within opposition-held areas could improve the odds of a political settlement. This would be important, because today they are virtually nil. Such a policy shift could begin in southern Syria, where conditions are currently most favourable.

While the White House has declared its desire for an end of President Bashar Assad’s rule, it has shied from concrete steps toward this goal, pursuing instead a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (IS), which it deems a more serious threat to its interests. Yet, a year into that strategy, the overall power of Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria (as in Iraq) has risen. This is no surprise: the Assad regime’s sectarian strategy, collective punishment tactics and reliance on Iran-backed militias, among other factors, help perpetuate ideal recruitment conditions for these groups. By attacking IS while ignoring the regime’s ongoing bombardment of civilians, the U.S. inadvertently strengthens important aspects of the Salafi-jihadi narrative depicting the West as colluding with Tehran and Damascus to subjugate Sunnis.

Salafi-jihadi groups, including IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate which fights both IS and the regime, are strongest in the north and east, where they have exploited disarray and conflicting priorities among the opposition’s external sponsors. While the U.S. has attached greatest importance to the battle against IS, for example, Turkey has pressed for a more concerted effort to topple the Assad regime, while pushing back against Kurdish groups allied with Iran. Continuing disagreement has prevented establishment of a northern no-fly zone, a key Turkish demand.

Southern Syria currently provides the best environment for a new approach. Beginning in early 2014, increased assistance from Western and Arab states and improved coordination among the southern armed opposition factions they support sparked a string of victories against regime forces, enabling these factions to gain strength relative to Salafi-jihadi groups. With these factions in the lead, by late January 2015 opposition forces had gained control over contiguous territory encompassing most of Quneitra province and the western third of Deraa province. A major regime counter-offensive the next month south of Damascus, with unprecedented Iranian and Hizbollah support, recaptured only a small share of territory and failed to halt the momentum of opposition forces that extended their territory through much of eastern Deraa between March and June. An opposition offensive is ongoing in late summer to capture the portion of Deraa’s provincial capital still under regime control.

Some of this success can be attributed to the steady erosion of regime military capacity, which manpower constraints suggest will continue. This may force Assad to deepen reliance on Iran-backed militias in areas he fears losing, or concede these to the opposition and resort to aerial attacks (including barrel bombs) to keep them ungovernable. In either scenario, Salafi-jihadi groups would gain further traction, lowering prospects for resolving the conflict politically. Avoiding this requires a joint strategy among the opposition’s backers to empower credible opposition elements to fill the military and civil voids on the ground by establishing effective civil administrations. The south, where Salafi-jihadi groups are weakest, is the most favourable starting ground.

As has become clear throughout Syria, however, opposition elements cannot build effective governance amid the death and destruction caused by aerial bombardment, particularly given the regime’s tendency to target precisely those facilities necessary for capacity to emerge. Diplomatic admonitions which are not backed by concrete action carry little weight with the regime’s backers, and are unlikely to halt Assad’s use of air attacks as part of a scorched-earth strategy and a way to mete out collective punishment. The U.S. needs to be ready to pursue other means at its disposal, and to signal that readiness.

The Obama administration has sought to avoid that deeper involvement in the conflict, due to scepticism about what a more robust policy could achieve and concern that the regime’s allies might retaliate against U.S. personnel and interests elsewhere. But this conflict will not end without a shift in U.S. policy. In addition to improving living conditions in the south, it could also significantly help in degrading Salafi-jihadi power and otherwise improve prospects for an eventual negotiated end of the war.

It would do so, first, by enabling opposition groups to consolidate military control and establish governance capacity in the south. This would improve their strength and credibility vis-à-vis Salafi-jihadi groups and could incentivise their development as political actors capable of governing their areas.

Secondly, achieving a zone free of aerial attacks in the south could provide a model for a different approach by the rebels’ state backers in the north, where poor coordination and divergent priorities with Ankara, Doha and Riyadh have contributed to a situation not conducive to an escalated U.S. role. A move by Washington to halt regime aerial attacks in the south could signal it would consider doing so in the north as well, if those allies would assist in bringing about a similar shift in the northern balance of power away from Salafi-jihadi groups.

Thirdly, a U.S. push to halt regime air attacks in the south would signal resolve to the regime’s most important backers, Iran and Hizbollah, and demonstrate that the returns on their investments in the status quo will further diminish. Iranian and Hiz­bollah officials play down the long-term costs of their involvement, believing they can outlast their opponents in a proxy war of attrition, and viewing the price of doing so as preferable to negotiating a resolution that includes an end to Assad’s rule. Their view appears based, in part, on the assumption that Washington’s narrow focus on IS and reluctance to confront the regime are pushing its policy toward accepting Assad’s political survival and thus, ultimately, a resolution of the conflict more favourable to them.

The U.S. initiative described here could help refute that assumption and put weight behind the White House’s assertions that the nuclear deal will not pave the way for Iranian hegemony in the region. This message of resolve should be paired with a parallel one indicating U.S. willingness to take the core interests of the regime’s backers into account in any political deal to end the war.

Beirut/Brussels, 2 September 2015

Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib

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.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – Third Update.

The 17 September Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey forestalled the Syrian regime’s imminent attack on rebel-held Idlib governorate and surrounding areas in Syria’s north west. The agreement established a 20km buffer zone between rebels and the regime along Idlib’s borders, which was to be emptied of heavy weapons by 10 October. By late October, the agreement’s implementation appeared to be in progress: heavy arms were no longer visible, though it remained unclear if they had been removed. In any event, Russia expressed satisfaction with Turkey’s efforts to demilitarise the zone.

The agreement succeeded in averting – for now – a battle that the UN warned could trigger the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. But while Idlib’s fate remains uncertain, European partners must work to support Turkish efforts to implement the deal’s conditions and sustain a political process while bolstering preparations for managing the humanitarian fallout in the event of an attack, the threat of which remains real.

The EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Keep backing the agreement, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. Europeans should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria, and thus prevent Russia from achieving its political objective – not just the regime’s survival but a settlement that leads to a degree of regime rehabilitation.
     
  • Engage prudently with Russia. The EU should be open to discussing avenues of cooperation with Moscow on Syria, both independently and in support of Turkish initiatives such as its 27 October quartet summit alongside France, Germany and Russia. At the same time it should resist Moscow’s efforts to accelerate the provision of European reconstruction assistance in the absence of any political progress.
     
  • Press Russia to continue to show flexibility with Turkey as it proceeds with implementing the commitment it made in Sochi in September. Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey and, if necessary, condition future cooperation with Russia on such Russian flexibility.
     
  • Encourage Turkey to continue its own humanitarian preparations in the event of an attack on Idlib, including planning, building aid infrastructure, and pre-positioning assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
     
  • Urge Turkey to coordinate its humanitarian response with international allies. Europeans should ask Turkey to share more information, specifically about its security operations in Idlib that restrict humanitarian access. If the Syrian regime attacks Idlib, Turkey’s allies will be more effective partners if they have jointly planned and prepared.
     
  • Urge Turkey to allow humanitarian action in Turkish-controlled Aleppo independent of Turkish state and para-state bodies. Turkey may be uncomfortable with allowing autonomous relief actors into an area it is keen to keep under control, but otherwise Europeans and others cannot support its aid efforts.
Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey as it implements Sochi’s provisions.

Sochi’s Origins and Stakes

Several factors enabled the Sochi agreement, notably Turkey’s strong indications it would resist an Idlib offensive – including its decision to send considerable addi-tional weapons to Syrian rebels in Idlib – and U.S. pressure. Arguably most im-portant was Ankara signalling to Moscow that an offensive would end Turkish-Russian cooperation on a political settlement. As one of the guarantors (together with Russia and Iran) of the Astana process, Turkey remains central to Russia’s ef-forts to find a political resolution to Syria’s war. Russia needs Turkish buy-in if it hopes to crown its military success with some international re-legitimisation of the Syrian regime and secure outside funds for the country’s reconstruction. 

Along with the U.S., EU member states provided important diplomatic backing to Turkey in support of an Idlib deal. Emphatic public European opposition to an assault and energetic, direct diplomacy with Russia by EU member states con-vinced Moscow that an all-out attack would seriously damage cooperation on Syria. Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey as it implements Sochi’s pro-visions and, through direct channels with Russia, stress that a humanitarian disas-ter that displaces more refugees (and some militants) into Turkey and Europe di-rectly prejudices European interests. EU member states should make clear that an attack on Idlib would poison further cooperation and cripple Syria’s political pro-cess, on which major reconstruction funds depend. 

The Potential Humanitarian Catastrophe 

The priority for Europeans and others must be preventing an attack on Idlib, as the humanitarian impact would outstrip even the best-planned and well-resourced re-sponse. But the EU should also anticipate the worst case scenario, namely the So-chi deal’s collapse and an ensuing regime offensive. The EU needs to ensure it is prepared to the extent possible, helping humanitarian partners plan and pre-position supplies and funding the humanitarian response. 

Turkey has been undertaking emergency preparations, though it has not always publicised them for fear of undermining good faith efforts at de-escalation. Yet its limited communication prevents donors and their international NGO partners from effectively coordinating and planning their contribution to a relief effort. Turkey has also restricted independent access for international organisations to the parts of Aleppo governorate it controls. Humanitarian capacity is already stretched in these areas, which are the likeliest destination for Idlib’s residents if they have to flee.

Europeans must continue to appeal to Turkey to share information on their ef-forts in Idlib in order for other donors and humanitarians to appropriately plan. And the EU needs to push Turkey to allow independent humanitarian action inside Turkish-controlled Aleppo, where, if Idlib is attacked, Turkey will be unable to sin-glehandedly meet vulnerable Syrians’ urgent needs.