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Verify, then Verify Again
Verify, then Verify Again
Syria after the U.S. Strike: What Should Come Next
Syria after the U.S. Strike: What Should Come Next
Armenak Tokmajyan speaks at a lecture on the Syria refugee crisis at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, on 7 October 2015. Daniel Vegel.

Verify, then Verify Again

Six months into research fellowships made possible by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra, we catch up with three young experts now working with our Europe, Africa and Middle East teams. Here we talk to Armenak Tokmajyan, working on humanitarian dimensions of the Syrian war.

Researching the northern front of the Syria war for International Crisis Group, Giustra Fellow Armenak Tokmajyan faces a harrowing problem: the main city being destroyed in the fighting has been Aleppo, where he grew up and went to school, and where some of the people being forced out onto the road are his neighbours and friends.

Armenak feels a kind of survivor’s guilt, since, after many difficult years, he and his family are now safely outside the country. But he still feels passionately engaged with the fate of people still trapped in the five-year-old conflict, and is glad of any chance to help.

“So many others are suffering and didn’t have the same opportunities as me”, he said. “For me, fighting was not an option. I decided to leave the country and continue my education in conflict resolution. It makes me happy that I am now able to contribute, in my way, as a researcher”.

Armenak is one of three young regional research fellows who began work with International Crisis Group six months ago thanks to a $1 million gift by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra. They are supporting all aspects of Crisis Group’s mission to prevent deadly conflict, with a focus on the refugee and migration crises. The aim of the two-year fellowships is to give first-hand experience of Crisis Group’s method of research and analysis through training and mentorship, and contribute to building greater capacity and expertise in the countries where Crisis Group works.

Reconnecting to a Changed Syria

Unable to return to northern Syria himself, because of the dangers and his lack of Syrian documentation, Armenak first sat down to enrich his knowledge of humanitarian work, refugees and the internally displaced. For four months, he combed through and commented on all the reports he could find that had been published on Syria and its neighbours Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, especially the many published by Crisis Group.

“I wished I could interact with the subjects of the reports”, he said. “But I was able to create a proper archive, so I really benefitted a lot. It was a period of reading and learning”.

Battles in Syria always have multiple narratives, and you have to get to the bottom of each one.

An initial period of brainstorming with his colleagues in Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program showed he was best placed to work on the internally displaced in north-west Syria. This is a delicate task, since it has to be done from outside. But it is an important one, since locals’ anxieties have risen sharply since the recapture of eastern Aleppo by government forces in December 2016. They fear the war could soon envelop this region too, especially after a devastating chemical attack in early April 2017.

Armenak began the patient, laborious process of building up a network of contacts. He had to start from scratch, because almost every single friend from his hometown of Aleppo had left. Many had become a refugee like himself: 5.8 million Syrians are now registered refugees and asylum seekers from a pre-war population or 23 million, according to the UN. Others had joined the displaced, a category that now includes more than one third of the 18 million people left inside Syria, most of them in government-controlled territory.

“The Program Director told me to use what he called ‘the tried and tested snowball method: call one person, and then ask that person for the names of two more people to call’”, Armenak said. “I can’t go back to Syria myself because I am technically a foreigner. I lived in Syria for fifteen years but never got the nationality. But I can make calls by Skype, connect with people on Twitter, follow people on Facebook. It really takes time to get to know people”.

As he began gathering the pieces of a puzzle that will one day become a Crisis Group Report – the long-form, densely footnoted publication that lays the foundations of the expertise of all our conflict analysts – he says he made another conceptual breakthrough that he hadn’t expected.

Critical Thinking

“What I am really happy about is the critical thinking”, he said. “There is this culture I found in Crisis Group. All my MENA Program colleagues are making me think through things the way they do. They taught me not just to find a piece of information, but then also to check it with one person, then another, then online. And then to think about it, re-think it, analyse it, re-analyse it, map it, articulate ideas about it. I am working in an environment where researchers are very keen to provide accurate information and useful analysis. Such verification is very hard, but fruitful and valuable. Now I’ve started implementing it myself, it makes a real difference”.

One example came as Armenak followed the fighting for control of his old home town. During the government-imposed siege there was heavy bombardment of eastern Aleppo, a devastating campaign that international media covered extensively. But he was surprised to discover the extent that western Aleppo was hit as well. Going beyond the coverage of international media and talking to locals in the western side was crucial to verify what contacts kept telling him: that the opposition was also firing dozens of rockets that hit civilian areas every day.

“Battles in Syria always have multiple narratives, and you have to get to the bottom of each one”, Armenak said. “People might think double checking is a common practice. I would argue otherwise. Even well-covered stories can be very simplified by the media”.

Armenak has learned to be careful with internet videos. “Sometimes videos are not rightly referenced or located, you can even find fabricated ones. Syrians are quick to learn but most people don’t have the professional training of a reporter. Yesterday a friend of mine posted a good quality video of a brand new [Russian] SU 34 bombing Idlib. The previous tweet had said: ‘Here is the Syrian Air Force, bombing Idlib’. But Syria doesn’t have SU 34s”.

I am working in an environment where researchers are very keen to provide accurate information and useful analysis. Such verification is very hard, but fruitful and valuable.

Idlib, an opposition-held province in north-western Syria, is Armenak’s particular research focus because IDPs make up half of the 1.8 million people the UN says are living there. His preliminary findings show that Idlib’s communities have independent human potential and local civilian structures that are worthy of stronger international support. New fighting, on the other hand, could force these increasingly nervous people over the nearby Turkish border to become dependent refugees.

“The most skilled interviewer can’t get the same information as actually being there, but I’ve learned how to get closer. I asked one person, ‘Can you get shawarma and falafel on each corner?’ My contact laughingly replied, ‘Nobody ever asked me that question before!’”, he said. “Knowing the answer helped me understand how much life in that part of Syria had returned to normal. Other important questions are social ones: Are IDPs excluded? Do they have ghettos? Do they mix in? You quickly learn that all places are different”.

Armenak Tokmajyan was born in the Republic of Armenia and was raised and educated in Aleppo and Damascus, and speaks Arabic, English and Armenian. He was previously at the Shattuck Center on Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery at the Central European University, where he focused on the conflict in Aleppo as a Holbrooke Fellow. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and a Diploma in Fine Arts from Syria. He received his Master’s Degree in Finland from the University of Tampere’s Program in Peace, Mediation and Conflict Research.

A poison hazard danger sign is seen in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, Syria, on 5 April 2017. ANADOLU AGENCY/Ogun Duru

Syria after the U.S. Strike: What Should Come Next

Poison gas and missile response have heightened tensions over the Syria conflict. Washington and Moscow should respond to the new risks by pursuing their stated common interest: sufficient de-escalation of the war's violence to establish a meaningful political track toward settlement.

Whether one believes they were the long-overdue response to the Syrian regime’s brutality, a one-off event that will not affect the conflict’s trajectory, a risky step that could prompt military escalation or all of the above, the 7 April U.S. missile strikes on Syria’s Shayrat air base in response to the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons should be seized upon as an opportunity to jumpstart diplomatic efforts. The strikes have heightened tension between Moscow and Washington. Yet, this added volatility and the risks attached to it could and should prompt more serious pursuit by the two countries of their purportedly common interest: de-escalating violence sufficiently to establish a meaningful political track. This can be best achieved by deepening rather than breaking off U.S.-Russian cooperation.

The Trump administration framed its strikes, involving 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean, as a proportional response to what both the U.S. and such independent on-the-ground observers as the group Médecins sans Frontières concluded was a sarin attack near the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on the Damascus-Aleppo highway on 4 April. It identified the target as the air base from which it said the aircraft that carried out the attack had taken off. It highlighted efforts to alert Moscow beforehand and avoid casualties among both Russian and Syrian personnel. And it noted that while the decision to punish the regime militarily for chemical attacks was new, its broader policy of prioritising the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and pinning the hoped-for departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the results of a political process remains in place. In other words, the military action appeared intended to be narrow in scope, an attempt at limiting risk but offering correspondingly relatively modest rewards: deterrence of further chemical attacks.

In the U.S. and Europe, as well as in many Middle East countries, the Trump administration’s decision brought relief to those who had bemoaned President Obama’s reluctance to order more forceful U.S. military action to protect Syrian civilians from regime atrocities and, for some, even oust the regime. Others deemed it a risky gambit, taken impulsively and outside the framework of a forward-looking strategy, that would not change the fundamental course of the war and inadvertently could trigger an escalation, if not a direct military confrontation, with Russia or Iran. Some saw it as a bit of both: a welcome response that only would make sense – and avoid unintended consequences – if immediately accompanied by efforts to put Syria’s collapsed ceasefire and faltering political talks back on track.

Now that both sides have made their largely symbolic moves, the moment has arrived to return to diplomacy and de-escalate tensions.

The risks are indeed significant. If, for example, regime chemical attacks were to continue (perhaps employing chlorine instead of the much deadlier nerve agent sarin), the U.S. might find itself compelled to launch additional, more significant strikes and accept the increased risks, or forfeit whatever deterrent effect and credibility boost it had hoped to achieve. High-casualty regime attacks employing other weapons, such as barrel bombs, likewise may generate pressure on Washington to decide whether to expand its deterrence or be seen as signalling that atrocities that do not involve poison gas are tolerable. There also is the related challenge of managing U.S. allies in Syria and the broader region, whose expectations may now rise disproportionately to what the White House is willing to do in their support.

The biggest risk, direct escalation with the regime’s principal backers, Russia and Iran, can be expected to grow in the event of additional U.S. strikes. Iran’s militia network has the capacity to retaliate against U.S. interests throughout the region. Moscow presents an even bigger and more immediate concern: Russian and U.S. jets share the Syrian skies, and Russian personnel and equipment are integral components of the regime’s air-defence systems. This means not only that Moscow can severely constrain Washington’s capacity to carry out airstrikes crucial to its efforts against ISIS in eastern Syria, but also that an accident or miscommunication involving aircraft or ground personnel could set off an extremely dangerous escalatory spiral. Underlining this concern is the fact that Moscow has already announced its intentions to suspend participation in the de-confliction channel its forces and those of the U.S. use and beef up the regime’s air defences. It also has dispatched a frigate carrying cruise missiles to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Now that both sides have made their largely symbolic moves, the moment has arrived to return to diplomacy and de-escalate tensions, lest an opportunity be wasted and the situation spin out of control. Despite the brief display of U.S. military muscle, Russia remains in the driver’s seat in the Syrian conflict, given its assets on the ground and in the air, as well as its alliance with the regime, Iran, Hizbollah and associated militias. While Washington can hope to influence Moscow’s behaviour, Russia doubtless will take the lead in shaping the course of events.

During a visit to Moscow that coincided with the Khan Sheikhoun attack and the U.S. missile strike, Crisis Group encountered deep frustration about the presumed lack of U.S. appreciation for what Moscow considers to be its constructive effort to end the war and prevent the country’s dissolution. Despite the public bluster, Russia is also clearly weary of further escalation and a complete unravelling of its diplomatic efforts at effecting a ceasefire and jumpstarting political talks, and apprehensive about the soundness of its Syrian ally. Some Russian analysts also expressed concern about the damage Russia’s reputation might suffer from what they considered the regime’s graphic and blatant breach of an agreement on the regime’s chemical arsenal and chemical weapons use that Moscow itself initiated. (This is the 2013 U.S.-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program, and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 endorsing that agreement.)

Whatever wisdom one might assign to the latest U.S.-Russian tit-for-tat, it has potential to advance a better way forward. Rather than merely seeking to restore the pre-2013 status quo concerning non-use of chemical weapons, the U.S. and Russia should take steps jointly to prevent a direct confrontation and pursue what both have identified as an immediate interest: reducing violence between the regime and its non-jihadist opponents. This is essential to save lives but also could enable a shift of resources toward the fight against ISIS; obstruct efforts by Tahrir al-Sham (a jihadist coalition led by a former al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra) to assert hegemony over the opposition’s non-jihadist factions; and, over time, pave the way for a credible political process.

The first step should be to define the terms of a viable ceasefire between the regime and non-jihadist opposition. Elements of truces attempted in 2016 and early 2017 could provide starting points. Trading U.S. counter-terror coordination with Moscow in exchange for an end to regime air attacks outside ISIS-held areas merits renewed discussion. Including Turkey, Iran and Jordan as co-guarantors alongside Moscow and Washington would be necessary to achieve a critical mass of leverage over the warring Syrian parties. Recognising spheres of influence held by the conflict’s many players is nobody’s idea of a perfect peace, but currently it offers the most realistic path to a sustained de-escalation that could create space for a political process addressing Syria’s governance and geopolitical dilemmas.

The U.S. and Russia should take steps jointly to prevent a direct confrontation and pursue what both have identified as an immediate interest: reducing violence between the regime and its non-jihadist opponents.

For a new ceasefire to succeed where others have failed, however, Russia, the U.S. and their regional partners will have to be more realistic in addressing the challenges posed by Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates much of the rebel-held north west and holds territory close to non-jihadist forces. Its exclusion from previous truces has increased its incentives to act as a spoiler and provided a loophole through which the regime and its allies have continued to pummel opposition-held areas (using its presence, real or fabricated, as a pretext). To have any chance of success, a ceasefire must include – at least for a defined period – areas in which Tahrir al-Sham is present but does not exert unilateral control. This would provide time, space and political capital for the U.S. and Turkey to work with rebel allies to address the Tahrir al-Sham problem before it strangles them.

Though they support opposing sides, Washington and Moscow appear more realistic about the need for eventual compromise than their respective Syrian and regional allies. Russia is pinched between an unreliable ally in the Assad regime, which, for all its brutality, is incapable of winning the war; an all too capable ally in Iran, able to defend its interests in Syria even when they diverge from Moscow’s; an adversary in Turkey which, nominal rapprochement notwithstanding, has little incentive at present to do Moscow favours; a formidable military power across the occupied Golan in Israel, which is sceptical of Russia’s intentions and ability to rein in Hizbollah and acts against it even in proximity to Russian forces; and an unpredictable rival in the Trump administration, which, for all its professed desire to avoid foreign entanglements, may find stoking crisis to its political benefit. Russia for the most part has successfully balanced among these competing forces, but it cannot do so forever. The chemical weapon attack and U.S. response are examples of destabilising events that are bound to increase and at some point slip out of Moscow’s control.

Ultimately, U.S. and Russian realism will be needed to seriously begin a process that could lead to an end of the conflict. What happened in Khan Sheikhoun points to the horrors ahead and of their dangerous regional and perhaps even wider international ramifications if the situation is left adrift. Whether the U.S. attack on 7 April was prudent or reckless is beside the point: what matters now is to turn it into an opportunity to initiate steps that reduce the violence in Syria, so that the unspeakable civilian suffering eases and a political process finally has a chance.