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Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria
Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria
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

A United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy delivering aid packages in the rebel-held town of Nashabiyah in Eastern Ghouta for the first time in five years, on 30 July 2017. AFP/Amer Almohibany

Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria

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.

Syria’s civilians have suffered tremendously through the country’s seven years of conflict. Now, as the Syrian government and its allies prepare to retake Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta suburbs, hundreds of thousands will be caught in the crossfire once more. The humanitarian corridors announced by Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for Eastern Ghouta, and proposed for the Rukban camp on the border with Jordan further east, are unlikely to substantially mitigate that suffering.

To be sure, any means for civilians to safely and voluntarily escape the violence in besieged Eastern Ghouta is positive and welcome. But the corridor announced unilaterally by Russia and the Syrian government through the Wafideen camp lacks the sort of guarantees that would allow Ghouta’s nearly 400,000 residents to use it or other concerned parties, including UN Security Council members, to endorse it.

First of all, residents would have to be able to reach the corridor without fear of being targeted en route. Daily ceasefires of five hours, still punctured by intermittent shelling, are too narrow a window. Prior experience with Syrian ceasefires has generated a deep sense of distrust. It would take quite some time without any violations for people to trust that this one is different. These five-hour windows also fall short of the cessation of hostilities and durable humanitarian pause demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which Russia supported.

Rather than saving lives, the corridor may even serve as a cover for further military escalation.

People in Eastern Ghouta also harbour a deep-seated fear of what would happen to them once they reach government-controlled territory. Compulsory military service for male family members is a concern regardless of political orientation. Retaliation by the security state is a threat for anyone who has – or whose loved ones have – a record of opposition to the regime. In Eastern Ghouta, that may include nearly everyone.

Thus, for most, an unconditional return to areas of government control is not a safe or realistic option, as evidenced by the miniscule numbers who left thus far. State media have claimed that the armed groups prevent people from leaving, holding them as human shields for all practical purposes. Such accounts are impossible to verify, but without credible guarantees, little if any coercion would be required to prevent departures.

Rather than saving lives, the corridor may even serve as a cover for further military escalation. As time elapses, the argument will gain ground that those still inside are either in cahoots with, or held back by, insurgents – with the implication that neither government forces nor their Russian allies are to blame for casualties from shelling and bombing the densely populated area indiscriminately.

Eastern Ghouta requires a negotiated resolution, not a military victory that would be disastrous – for Ghouta’s residents first and foremost, but also for Syria’s future. Hundreds of thousands of people cannot be crushed militarily and then successfully reintegrated into Syria’s state and society. A non-violent alternative is possible: Russia has negotiated with Eastern Ghouta’s non-jihadist rebel factions in the past. For Moscow, these are known interlocutors, with whom it is possible to reach an agreement.

Russia should work to secure Damascus’s approval for what would be a critical humanitarian lifeline to this community ... rather than declaring an evacuation corridor that is unnecessary.

Rukban’s situation is different. With no fighting ongoing in the area, residents there can leave the U.S.-policed zone around the Tanaf military base and return to their homes, no corridor needed. It is just that these homes are not safe. Last year, hundreds of Rukban residents returned to the town of Qaryatein near Homs, only to have the Islamic State (ISIS) overrun the town and massacre its civilians. Most of Rukban’s current residents are from Syria’s central Badiya desert and the country’s east, areas where ISIS has been defeated but which are not yet sufficiently secured. They would also need clarifications regarding their legal status when they return to areas of state control.

In the meantime, more should be done to deliver humanitarian assistance. Delivering aid across military lines from Damascus presents special challenges, including coordination with the U.S.-led coalition through de-confliction channels and with U.S.-backed militias inside the Tanaf zone. Still, Russia should work to secure Damascus’s approval for what would be a critical humanitarian lifeline to this community – a community the U.S. and Jordan have mostly failed to aid via the Jordanian border – rather than declaring an evacuation corridor that is unnecessary.

Humanitarian corridors as proposed by Russia do not offer solutions for either Eastern Ghouta or Rukban. Yet both areas present opportunities for Russia to work toward something genuinely stabilising and life-saving, if Russia is willing to sway its ally in Damascus. Pushing for a full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which could provide an opening for a negotiated resolution in Eastern Ghouta, and securing humanitarian access to Rukban would greatly enhance Russia’s credibility as a mediator in Syria and, critically, spare more bloodshed.

This article was also published by the Valdai Discussion Club.