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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacts as he attends a news conference after a meeting with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Moscow, 23 March 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russia’s Choice in Syria

Many questions surround Moscow’s surprise announcement of a force reduction in Syria. Yet it clearly enhanced Russia’s leverage over the regime and provided a much-needed dose of credibility to the nascent political process. Avoiding further regional unravelling and spiralling radicalisation, however, and pushing the conflict toward an initial settlement will require further adjustments in Russia's strategy, including addressing the Assad conundrum.

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I. Overview

In announcing Moscow’s intent to withdraw the “main part“ of the military assets that it deployed to Syria since last September, President Vladimir Putin again caught much of the world off-guard, this time allies and adversaries alike. Having decla­red victory while maintaining its war-fighting capacity in Syria, Russia has left key questions unanswered: will it actually reduce its military role and, if so, to what extent, where and against whom. But if it implements the announcement in a meaningful way, this could create the best opportunity in years to push the conflict toward an initial settlement, especially on the heels of Moscow’s decision to help implement a “cessation of hostilities”.

This much is clear: Putin’s announcement underlined crucial points distinguishing Russian aims from those of the Assad regime and enhanced Moscow’s leverage over Damascus. It also, for the moment at least, increased Russia’s investment in the fledgling, fragile political process it is co-sponsoring with the U.S.

This much is unclear: having battered Syria’s non-jihadist rebels nearly to the brink of defeat but not over it, what sort of political and military arrangements will Moscow seek? Will it aim to cement battlefield gains, while maintaining a less aggressive posture in the hope that reduced violence will encourage the U.S. to drop any active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and to increase coordination with Moscow against jihadist groups? This option is consistent with Russia’s general approach to the conflict, but would entail an open-ended military commitment, offer little prospect of improved stability and possibly play to the jihadists’ advantage.

Alternatively, will Moscow push for a more robust settlement that has a chance of stabilising the country – at least those parts the regime and non-jihadist rebels control? That would require an additional, political outlay: most importantly, delinking its own interests in Syria from the person of Assad – and, ultimately, convincing Iran to do the same. If Moscow wishes to avoid further regional unravelling and spiraling radicalisation, this is an investment worth making.

Istanbul/New York/Brussels, 29 March 2016

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.