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Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts

While a diplomatic settlement of the Syrian war is unrealistic at present, it remains the only viable option. It will require difficult steps by local, regional and international actors to accommodate competing interests.

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Executive Summary

Two years, scores of thousands of dead, a mushrooming regional sectarian war and millions of refugees and internally displaced later, the Syrian war is tying the international community in knots largely of its own making. Once confident of swift victory, the opposition’s foreign allies shifted to a paradigm dangerously divorced from reality: that military pressure would force the regime to alter its calculus so that it would either negotiate its demise or experience internal cracks leading to its collapse. That discounted the apparent determination of Iran, Hizbollah and Russia to do what it takes to keep the regime afloat and bring the armed opposition to its knees. It counted without the fecklessness of an opposition in exile fighting for a share of power it has yet to achieve. And it assumed that the Assad regime has a “calculus” susceptible to be changed, not merely a fighting mode designed to last. It is past time to get over false hopes and confront a harsh truth. The options that dominate the policy debate would deepen the crisis, not produce a credible exit from it.

If the goal is to end this horrendous war, the choice is between massive Western military intervention – with attending risks and uncertainties – to decisively shift the ground balance; acceptance of regime victory with the moral and political price that would entail; and a diplomatic solution driven jointly by the U.S. and Russia. The latter is the preferred but today illusory option, in which regime and opposition would settle for a less-than-satisfactory power-sharing agreement, and the region’s main rival camps (led, respectively, by Iran and Saudi Arabia) would acquiesce in a Syria aligned with neither. A fourth option – in which allies give both sides enough to survive but not prevail – would perpetuate a proxy war with Syrians as primary victims. It is the present stage and the likeliest forecast for the foreseeable future.

For now, the focus should be on immediate steps to de-escalate the conflict and on mapping out in more detail an endgame that could serve as the basis for a diplomatic settlement. This entails answering core questions: What kind of power-sharing solution can protect regime and opposition interests alike? What kind of state could emerge from a political process and be the foundation of a lasting solution? How must existing institutions change for this vision to gain substance? Is there a way to accommodate the concerns of rival regional actors? This is where most agreement can be found among Syrians and their allies’ concerns can be addressed. This report suggests ideas for further discussion.

That choices are so unpalatable, unrealistic or both owes much to the dynamics of a war that is often misdiagnosed. It is not a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains definitely mean the other side’s loss. Both regime and opposition can be strong on some fronts, frail on others. Both have undergone consolidation processes and enjoy sufficient domestic and foreign support to endure. Its fighters more battle-hardened and its allies more hands-on, the regime has scored important tactical military victories. It retains loyal constituencies; some once on the fence, well aware of Assad’s atrocities yet alarmed by the opposition’s desultory record of governance as well as increasingly Islamist and sectarian disposition, hold their nose and lean toward a regime that claims to be fighting on behalf of a significant national cross-section. Most importantly, the regime has evolved in ways that largely make it impervious to its innumerable failings.

This is one good reason to rapidly discard the tipping-point theory, the fiction that once the opposition reached a critical mass (taking over Aleppo; moving into Damascus; bringing the business class to its side, among other hypotheticals) it would overwhelm the regime. One should do the same with the notion that, under growing pressure, the power structure would turn against itself, in a military coup or by desertion of significant personalities. The regime comes as a package deal – an inseparable whole, whose more acceptable elements cannot be dissociated from its least tolerable ones without bringing the entire edifice down. Assad supporters, often among his harshest private critics, remain persuaded that the remnants of the state would crumble were he to step down.

In its own way but with much the same result, the opposition is nearly impossible to eliminate. There are differences, of course. It is pluralistic and deeply divided, its structures improvised and shifting and its foreign backers less consistent and more uncoordinated. Still, and not unlike the regime, it has acquired a critical and resilient mass of support at least partially immune to the ups and downs of its performance. The large underclass that is its core constituency has suffered such extreme regime violence that it can be expected to fight till the end.

International support has been inconstant in the best of times, ineffectual at others. Yet even the opposition’s most reluctant foreign supporters are unlikely to fundamentally reverse course; as the recent decisions by Washington to deliver some weapons and then by others to significantly ramp up their own assistance suggest, they are more likely to do the opposite. Too much has been invested in demonising the regime, and too much is riding on the contest with Iran and Hizbollah for it to be otherwise. For those who view the conflict as a proxy war with Tehran, Assad’s survival would be a strategic body blow.

In short, the evolution of regime and opposition alike has made both military and negotiated solutions even more elusive, while transformation of the broader strategic context has made prospects for escalation even more probable. In the words of a former U.S. official, what once was a Syrian conflict with regional spillover has become a regional war with a Syrian focus. That is frightening.

The war is metastasising in ways that draw in regional and other international actors, erase boundaries and give rise to a single, transnational arc of crisis. The opposition increasingly resembles a Sunni coalition in which a radicalised Sunni street, Islamist networks, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Gulf states and Turkey take leading roles. The pro-regime camp, encompassing Iran, Hizbollah, Iraq and Iraqi Shiite militants, likewise appears to be a quasi-confessional alliance.

By its own admission, Hizbollah is directly engaged in a far-reaching battle against those it denounces as Sunni fundamentalists (takfiris) allied with Israel, thereby laying the predicate for long-term involvement. Iraqi Shiite fighters are growing in numbers, and Iran’s participation is expanding. Sunni sheikhs around the region are themselves using uninhibited sectarian language to urge followers to join the fight. The conflict has reignited tensions in Syria’s most fragile neighbours – Iraq and Lebanon – which recently had their own civil wars.

Stakes have risen for the U.S. and Israel as well. For Washington, acquiescing in the regime’s success arguably has acquired graver significance than living with a weakened regime ruling a rogue state and broken society. It is likened by some to empowering an increasingly integrated, Iranian-led axis of resistance, while handing Moscow a victory in a Cold War replay. The fusion of Iranian, Hizbollah and Syrian military assets could alter Israel’s cautious posture, making determination of what weapons system has been transferred to whom highly uncertain and thus a decision to use force more probable.

What is to be done? Already overdue is to vastly increase humanitarian aid within Syria, whether in regime- or opposition-held territory. There is need, too, for a “periphery” strategy for avoiding instability in vulnerable neighbours: giving economic help to Jordan and Lebanon and the refugees they host; prevailing upon regional countries not to further incite sectarian tensions in Lebanon; pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to adopt a far more inclusive policy toward his Sunni opposition.

Hardest of all is what to do about Syria. The priority should be to end the war; there are no easy choices, but there is at least need to face them squarely:

  • One option would be for the West to decisively tip the military balance. This, it almost certainly can do – albeit only by a far more massive intervention than is presently contemplated or, arguably, politically palatable. Even then, it is not clear whether the regime would be “defeated”, or merely reincarnated in a series of militias, and even less clear whether the war would be ended or only redefined. Iran, Hizbollah, perhaps even Russia would keep influence, fuel instability and ensure a chaotic transition (Tehran and the Shiite movement have elsewhere proved to be masters at this game), and the regional/sectarian Cold War would endure.
     
  • An arguably most expedient way to tamp down violence would be to starve the rebels of resources, acquiesce in de facto regime victory and seek an accommodation with Bashar. The moral, political and strategic costs would be huge, perhaps prohibitive, and it might well not end the tragedy: enraged Syrians likely would not surrender; an emboldened regime might seek revenge; and Damascus almost certainly would refrain from the domestic or foreign policy concessions necessary for its external enemies to save face.
     
  • The optimal solution – a negotiated, diplomatic one – at this stage belongs pretty much to the world of make-believe. Outside powers – beginning with Russia and the U.S. – would have to fundamentally shift their endgame approach. For Moscow, this means accepting, then pushing for a major transformation of the Syrian power structure; for Washington, it entails moving from implicit regime change to explicit power sharing. Any viable negotiated political outcome would have to empower and reassure Syria’s various constituencies. Regional actors, who will support a compromise only if they believe the new political framework gives them sufficient leverage to preserve their core interests, would need guarantees. The West’s apparent determination to exclude Iran from a peace conference (perhaps under review in the wake of that country’s presidential elections) is short-sighted: keeping Tehran from Geneva will not lessen its role in Damascus.

The West’s current trajectory – urging diplomacy while resorting to half-way measures such as arming the opposition or, conceivably in the future, targeted airstrikes and a limited no-fly zone – is an option as well, and one that might produce sizeable ancillary benefits: eroding the regime’s military; boosting Western influence over the rebels; and recalibrating the balance of power among rebel groups. But it would not produce what its promoters typically claim as justification: moving the regime to seriously negotiate a genuine transition. Nor is there any reason to believe it could arrest sectarian polarisation, contain violence, limit jihadi groups or persuade Syria’s allies to back down. Ultimately, it would mean getting further sucked into a dangerously intensifying and malignant Sunni/Shiite sectarian regional conflict in which the West would be running a risk by picking favourites.

If Russia and the U.S. wish to signal seriousness, they should start with efforts to de-escalate the conflict. Moscow should press the regime to end the most gratuitous forms of violence (notably massacres of civilians in the presence of army troops and use of ballistic missiles against civilians) and curtail the use of its foreign fighters (especially those of an overtly sectarian nature). Washington should push the opposition to act against its own most extreme armed groups and implement ceasefires along specified front lines. None of this would fundamentally alter the trajectory of the conflict or truly point to its resolution. But at least it would be a start, which is far more than one can say has been achieved at this sorry stage.

Damascus/Cairo/Brussels, 27 June 2013

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.