What Obama Doesn't Understand About Syria
What Obama Doesn't Understand About Syria
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

What Obama Doesn't Understand About Syria

The current U.S. strategy to destroy the Islamic State is likely doomed to fail. In fact, it risks doing just the opposite of its intended goal: strengthening the jihadis' appeal in Syria, Iraq, and far beyond, while leaving the door open for the Islamic State to expand into new areas.

This is in large part because the United States so far has addressed the problem of the Islamic State in isolation from other aspects of the trans-border conflict in Syria and Iraq. Unless Barack Obama's administration takes a broader view, it will be unable to respond effectively to the deteriorating situation on the ground.

The good news is that the White House can still change course -- and indeed, President Obama has reportedly requested a review of his administration's strategy in Syria. In crafting a new way forward, the White House needs to understand three points about the Islamic State and the military landscape in which it operates.

1. Growth is essential to the Islamic State's future, and its best opportunities are in Syria.

Demonstrating momentum is crucial to the jihadi group's ability to win new recruits and supporters. In an atmosphere of sectarian polarization and amid deepening Sunni anger at the use of indiscriminate violence by the Syrian and Iraqi governments and their allied militias, the Islamic State's primary asset has been its ability to rattle off a string of impressive victories. Its territorial gains project strength, which contrasts starkly with its Sunni rivals, such as the hapless Sunni political figures in Baghdad and the struggling mainstream armed opposition in Syria. Momentum on the battlefield also provides the Islamic State an alluring brand with which to cloak what is, ultimately, its familiar and unappealing product: single-party authoritarian rule, imposed by brutal force and secret police.

"Be assured, O Muslims, for your state is good and in the best condition," Islamic State "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said in his latest audiotape. "Its march will not stop and it will continue to expand, with Allah's permission."

Although its propaganda suggests otherwise, in reality the Islamic State has prioritized expansion and consolidation of power in Sunni Arab areas. Insofar as it attempts to seize ground and resources from government and Kurdish forces, it does so on the fringes of their territory or in isolated areas -- such as the northern Syrian city of Kobani -- that are especially vulnerable.

The Islamic State has incentive to pick such low-hanging fruit, but it has more to gain from seizing Sunni Arab areas. Each advance in these areas not only contributes to the group's perceived momentum, but also comes at the expense of local Sunni competitors. This is crucial, because local forces have by far the best track record of beating back the organization in Sunni Arab areas of Iraq and Syria. Local Sunni tribes and insurgents routed the group -- then known as the Islamic State of Iraq -- with American help in 2007 and 2008, and rebel groups drove it from the city of Aleppo and much of northwestern Syria in early 2014.

If the Islamic State is able to sideline such competitors and establish a monopoly on Sunni resistance to hated government and militia forces, it will secure its existence for the foreseeable future. It has already effectively accomplished this in Iraq and now hopes to do so in Syria.

For the Islamic State, the most valuable target for expansion in Syria and Iraq would appear to be the Syrian countryside north of Aleppo. Mainstream rebel factions control the area but are overstretched as they seek to hold the Islamic State at bay near the town of Marea while simultaneously fighting to prevent the regime from encircling their forces inside Aleppo city, 15 miles to the south. Should the jihadis escalate their attack on Marea in the near future, rebel forces already struggling to slow regime progress in Aleppo will probably be unable to prevent significant Islamic State gains.

At stake in the northern Aleppo countryside is the strategic border territory in the opposition's heartland. If the Islamic State seizes the area, it would give it control over a key supply line from Turkey and a foothold from which to expand further west. For mainstream rebel forces, the combined human, logistical, and psychological toll of a loss there would be devastating.

In this context, the current U.S. approach of giving precedence to the Iraqi battlefield while delaying difficult decisions on Syria is at odds with dynamics on the ground.

2. The twin crises of the Islamic State and Syrian regime are inextricably linked.

U.S. officials publicly acknowledge that the Syrian regime's behavior -- indeed its very nature -- is a primary factor fueling the jihadis' rise and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces continue to kill far more civilians (and rebels) than the Islamic State does. They also recognize that the role of mainstream rebels will be essential in reversing jihadi gains. Yet in practice, U.S. policy is emboldening Damascus and undermining the very rebels it is ostensibly designed to support.

The U.S.-led coalition's strikes have enabled the regime to reallocate assets to face mainstream rebels, whose defeat remains the regime's top priority. Since strikes against the Islamic State began, regime forces have gained ground against mainstream rebels on key fronts in Hama province and in Aleppo city; in the case of the latter, they have done so against the very same rebel groups that are confronting the Islamic State in the nearby northern countryside.

The targeting in Washington's air campaign has further blurred the lines between U.S. and regime military strategies. Rather than maintain singular focus on hitting Islamic State targets in eastern Syria, the United States has struck al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate whose role in combatting the regime and Islamic State has earned it credibility with the opposition's base, west of Aleppo. On one occasion, the United States also appears to have hit Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi group that has moderated its political platform substantially in recent months and that is broadly viewed as an authentically Syrian (albeit hard-line) component of the rebellion. Washington's claims that these strikes targeted members of a secretive "Khorasan" cell planning attacks against the United States or Europe are unconvincing in rebel eyes -- not least because Washington never publicly mentioned "Khorasan" until the week preceding the first round of strikes.

Such attacks strengthen jihadi claims that the U.S. campaign aims to quietly boost Assad while degrading a range of Islamist forces, and thus they are a significant blow to the credibility of those rebels willing to partner with the United States. For a rebel commander seeking to convince his fighters that cooperation with Washington is in the rebellion's best interest, American strikes that ignore the Assad regime while hitting Ahrar al-Sham are extremely difficult to explain. Even assuming "Khorasan" poses a threat justifying urgent action, Washington should more carefully weigh the immediate losses jihadis suffer in strikes against the recruiting benefit they derive from rising disgust with the U.S. approach among the rebel rank and file.

Washington also faces a more concrete operational problem: How can it hope to empower moderate rebels in northern Syria if the regime continues to drive them toward the brink of defeat? The portion of the White House's policy explicitly designed to strengthen these forces -- a $500 million program to train and equip 5,000 fighters over the course of one year -- will prove too little, too late to enable them to hold their ground against anticipated escalations by the Islamic State, ongoing al-Nusra Front efforts to expand control within rebel areas, and continued regime onslaughts.

3. For a "freeze" to help, it must be fundamentally different from a "cease-fire."

U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura is advocating a "fighting freeze" in the pivotal battle between regime and opposition forces in Aleppo. The goal is to relieve the humanitarian disaster in the northern city and allow all groups to focus their resources on combatting the Islamic State.

De Mistura's use of the word "freeze" rather than "cease-fire" is important. Cease-fires have been discredited in Syria: The regime has exploited them as a pillar of its strategy, cutting such agreements with rebels to cement a military victory or to withdraw resources in one area in order to shift them to another front. The regime's significant advantage in firepower has ensured that terms are heavily tilted in its favor -- and it has often used egregious violations of international humanitarian law, including sieges and indiscriminate bombardment, to achieve its aims. The cease-fires thus have not led to an overall reduction in the level of violence nationally or in the resolution of legitimate grievances that jihadi groups have proved so adept at exploiting.

A freeze in Aleppo can save lives and aid efforts to combat the Islamic State, but only if it preserves the mainstream opposition's fighting capacity. If it cements regime victory there or enables Damascus to redeploy resources against mainstream rebels elsewhere, it will work to the Islamic State's advantage. Insofar as the regime is able to gain ground from mainstream rebels, whether by force or truce, it is clearing Sunni competitors from the jihadis' path.

Yet the regime's position around Aleppo is so strong, given its progress toward severing the final rebel supply line to the city, that it currently has little incentive to reach any deal that would leave the rebels' fighting ability intact. Damascus would much prefer to deliver a decisive blow to the mainstream opposition in Aleppo, which would cripple the West's potential partners and leave only the regime as a supposed bulwark against the jihadis. Rebels recognize this, and given their negative experience with cease-fires elsewhere, even those in favor of a freeze are unlikely to invest political capital in convincing the skeptics in their own ranks unless they see new reason to hope for a fair deal.

The crux of the American dilemma in Syria is thus clear: Degrading jihadi groups requires empowering mainstream Sunni alternatives, but doing so may prove impossible unless Damascus (or its backers in Tehran) can be convinced or compelled to dramatically shift strategy. For now, the regime treats the Western-, Arab-, and Turkish-backed opposition as the main threat to its dominance in Syria and treats the Islamic State as a secondary concern that the United States is already helping to deal with. Iran has done nothing to suggest that it objects to the regime's strategy; instead, it is enabling it.

Damascus and Tehran appear to believe that achieving regime victory is simply a matter of maintaining the conflict's current trajectory. This view, however, is shortsighted and would yield an unprecedented recruiting bonanza for jihadi groups. If Washington wishes to prevent this -- and the unending cycle of conflict that it would perpetuate -- it must better balance its Iraq and Syria strategies, refine its airstrike tactics, and find ways to change calculations in Damascus and Tehran.

Workers carry boxes of humanitarian aid near Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Syrian-Turkish border, in Idlib governorate, Syria, June 30, 2021. Picture taken June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

The UN Security Council is considering renewing an understanding whereby UN agencies transport aid to Idlib, an area held by Syrian rebels. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Richard Gowan, Dareen Khalifa and Ashish Pradhan explain why the arrangement remains essential.

What is at stake in the Security Council?

The UN Security Council is set to vote soon on the renewal of a mandate that allows UN agencies to deliver aid to rebel-held Idlib in north-western Syria via a border crossing with Türkiye without asking for approval from the government in Damascus. The UN calculates that nearly two and a half million people rely on this lifeline for food and other essential supplies. Yet the arrangement is contentious. Since 2019, Russia, the Syrian regime’s ally, has aimed to curtail the mandate, arguing that the UN should work with Damascus on aid deliveries out of respect for Syria’s sovereignty.

In 2021, the U.S. made a concerted effort to convince Moscow to help keep the mandate alive, but it has made no similar push in 2022, as the two powers’ relations have collapsed over Russia’s war in Ukraine. Senior UN officials worry that Russia may veto the mandate – which should be renewed by 10 July – causing a dramatic drop in humanitarian assistance to Idlib and potentially leading to an influx of refugees into Türkiye. What happens with the mandate is a concern for the UN and, more importantly, for the people in Idlib.

The Security Council first authorised the UN to deliver cross-border aid to opposition-controlled areas of Syria without Damascus’s approval in 2014. At first, this mandate covered four crossing points, giving UN agencies access to southern and north-eastern Syria as well as the north west. The Council members’ cooperation on humanitarian issues despite their broader rifts over the war in Syria was a rare bright spot in UN diplomacy. But in rancorous debates in late 2019 and mid-2020, during which Russia and China used their vetoes three times to block resolutions renewing the mandate, Moscow succeeded in limiting the UN’s cross-border operations to a single crossing, at Bab al-Hawa between Türkiye and Idlib. Russia also made clear that the mandate could not be renewed indefinitely.

In 2021, the Biden administration identified maintaining aid to Idlib as an area for better relations with Russia. U.S. officials negotiated over the mandate’s future bilaterally with their Russian counterparts in Vienna and Geneva. While the official U.S. position was that the Council should reauthorise opening all four original crossings – an outcome few UN officials and diplomats thought likely – Russia assented that July only to keeping Bab al-Hawa open. Moscow also demanded that the UN work harder on channelling aid into Idlib from government-held Syrian territory (which is referred to as “cross-line” aid, as opposed to cross-border from Türkiye) and called for greater international funding for “early recovery” projects in government-controlled parts of Syria. Finally, Russia insisted that the UN Secretary-General report on cross-line aid halfway through the mandate period in January 2022, indicating that it might try to block the mandate’s continuation at that point (though it did not act on this threat). Despite these caveats, the Biden administration presented the fact that Russia was willing to keep the mandate alive at all – and the absence of public rows and vetoes at the UN like those in 2019 and 2020 – as proof that the U.S. could do business with the Kremlin.

Security Council members [fret] that Russian and Western diplomats would fail to reach an agreement on the future of aid to Syria.

A year on, that optimism looks like a thing of the past. Since Russia’s assault on Ukraine in February and the sharp deterioration in Moscow’s relations with Western powers, Security Council members have fretted that Russian and Western diplomats would fail to reach an agreement on the future of aid to Syria. As things stand, the mandate’s fate remains unclear with less than a week to go before the deadline for its renewal.

Ireland and Norway, the Security Council’s two elected members acting as “penholders” (diplomatic leads) on the issue, introduced a draft resolution renewing the authorisation for aid deliveries through Bab al-Hawa for twelve months on 27 June. Russia has yet to make a definitive response, and Council members expect that there may be intense wrangling over the text before the vote. The outcome will have a major effect on the lives of civilians in Idlib. It is also a crucial test of how far Russia and the West can continue to work together at the Security Council – however grudgingly – as the war in Ukraine rages and their policies become ever more hostile to one another.

How important is the mandate for Idlib and are there alternatives?

Despite the high level of tension in the Security Council over cross-border aid, this mandate has given the UN essential political backing to guide humanitarian operations in Idlib. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in particular has played a pivotal role in cross-border aid delivery. The Council mandate allowed OCHA to coordinate donor response, lead negotiations with local authorities, and guarantee a significant degree of transparency for aid delivered into these rebel-held areas. OCHA has also helped NGOs involved in relief work navigate the legal and political hurdles of operating in an area under the control of Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Islamist militia running most of Idlib. HTS is UN-sanctioned and is listed by Russia, the U.S. and Türkiye as a terrorist organisation.

The UN has additionally led negotiations involving Damascus and the HTS-backed Salvation Government that administers Idlib over the balance between cross-border and cross-line aid operations. The Syrian government and Russia insist that the UN ramp up cross-line assistance as an alternative to channelling aid through Bab al-Hawa, as part of their effort to reinstate Damascus’s influence over aid delivery to all of Syria. UN officials and Western diplomats are sceptical that this proposal is realistic, especially given the Syrian regime’s track record of blocking aid to punish civilians in opposition-held areas and the hostility of its rhetoric toward Idlib and its residents. From a technical point of view, cross-border aid remains the cheapest, quickest and most reliable way to meet Idlib’s needs. A report from the UN Secretary-General in June stated that UN humanitarian monitors counted some 1,686 trucks carrying supplies (four fifths of them bearing food) from Türkiye into Idlib in April and May alone. By contrast, the report noted that the UN had overseen just five cross-line convoys between July 2021 and June 2022, and highlighted one in May that involved just fourteen trucks.

The U.S. and its allies have agreed that the UN should also experiment with cross-line aid ... into Idlib.

Nonetheless, the U.S. and its allies have agreed that the UN should also experiment with cross-line aid, mainly as a political concession to Russia and in hope of retaining Moscow’s acquiescence to cross-border operations. In 2021, the Security Council agreed to “encourage efforts to improve cross-line deliveries of humanitarian assistance” from government-controlled areas into Idlib. Moscow complains that the resolution has not been fully respected, as cross-line deliveries to Idlib have remained irregular, while HTS (and civil society groups in Idlib) as well as many humanitarian agency employees describe these efforts as a sop to the Kremlin rather than serious aid.

This debate has also become highly contentious for local forces in Idlib. HTS and the Salvation Government have reluctantly agreed to some of the cross-line aid deliveries, providing them with security and allowing for safe distribution. Yet HTS has come under fierce criticism from parts of the population and rivals in Syria’s opposition for thus “collaborating” with a regime that has killed thousands and displaced millions of Syrians. In private, HTS members express concern that the cross-line mechanism is a quandary for them: if they cooperate, they are criticised locally; if they don’t, they will be condemned internationally; and in neither situation can cross-line aid address even a fraction of humanitarian needs in Idlib. For the time being, HTS has found it prudent to facilitate the safe passage of several cross-line aid convoys to avoid giving Moscow a pretext to put a halt to the UN’s cross-border mandate and to strengthen Türkiye’s hand in negotiating with Russia. According to HTS, it would be much harder for them to cooperate on cross-line aid if Moscow were to veto the cross-border mandate’s renewal.

What would a Russian veto mean?

If Russia does veto renewal of the cross-border aid mandate, the immediate fallout could be chaotic. It is not clear whether OCHA would have to abruptly end its Syria operations in Türkiye or whether it could continue to play a minimal coordination function during a transitional phase. Regardless, the absence of OCHA’s irreplaceable aid infrastructure and cross-border mandate would significantly reduce the volume of aid and the efficiency of the donor response. It would also leave NGOs and donors struggling to manage aid coordination and oversight, while reducing their leverage in dealing with authorities in Türkiye and Idlib. UN officials estimate that NGOs could supply at best 30 to 40 per cent of the aid that the UN has been providing. In practice that means hunger will increase, medical cases will go untreated, and millions will be at risk of losing shelter and assistance.

Crisis Group’s interlocutors in Idlib agree that the aid flow’s disruption could lead many of the region’s inhabitants – many of whom fled other parts of Syria earlier in the war – to attempt to escape the area, mostly by trying to enter Türkiye. How Ankara would respond to chaos at the border remains unclear; already in Türkiye the presence of an estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees is a source of socio-political tension, which is on the rise due to economic troubles and elections due in June 2023. Although living conditions in Idlib have improved considerably since Moscow and Ankara forged a de facto ceasefire in 2020, the population remains anxious about the precarious situation. “Our lives depend on the mood in the Kremlin every few months. This is inhuman and unsustainable”, an Idlib resident said.

What are the chances the mandate will survive?

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Security Council members generally seemed pessimistic about the chances of renewing the mandate for cross-border aid in conversations with Crisis Group. Now, however, some are guardedly optimistic that Moscow will let it survive. It is mostly a matter of speculation. The Russian mission in New York typically has to wait until late in negotiations on this file to get clear instructions from Moscow on how to act. In negotiations on the draft resolution tabled by Ireland and Norway on 27 June extending the mandate, neither Russian nor Chinese diplomats appeared to have definite guidance from their capitals. Western diplomats hope that Moscow will decide that it will retain greater leverage over events in Idlib by agreeing to renew the mandate – which gives it a platform for pushing the UN to work harder at cross-line aid – rather than forcing a crisis.

Western officials hope that Moscow will [refrain from using its veto] on this occasion.

Although Western and Russian diplomats have had toxic relations at the Security Council over Ukraine, Moscow has refrained from using its veto on other resolutions, such as a new mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, that other countries feared it might block. Western officials hope that Moscow will show similar restraint on this occasion, especially as vetoing the resolution would intensify its tensions with Türkiye (Turkish sources, by contrast, insist that they cannot prevent Russia from using its veto, and argue that Ankara should not be expected to fix this problem on behalf of the U.S. and European nations). China may also help moderate Russia’s calculations. During the 2021 negotiations over the Syrian humanitarian mandate, Chinese diplomats told Western counterparts that they did not want a repeat of the public disputes of 2019 and 2020. In 2022, they have emphasised the need to avoid too many blow-ups in the Security Council while the Russian-Ukrainian war continues.

There are different views regarding what Council negotiations will bring. Some Council members speculate that Russia could make last-minute demands – most likely over cross-line aid and funding for recovery – in the coming days. While the Council is slated to vote on mandate renewal on 7 July, it could push the date back, with negotiations perhaps running past the current mandate’s expiry on 10 July. Equally some UN officials guess that Russia will not create this sort of disruption, meaning that the process may end with a quick vote.

What is the longer-term future of cross-border aid to Syria?

It is clear that the best outcome of current UN diplomacy over Syria would be for the Security Council to renew the mandate for cross-border aid for a year. No credible alternative set of arrangements exists for cross-border aid. If Russia does veto the mandate, the fallout would provoke enormous humanitarian suffering, additional displacement and, potentially, political turmoil in and around Idlib. While Moscow has shown scant regard for the disapproval of other Security Council members over its war on Ukraine, it might be wary of straining its relationship with Ankara – and of creating a new crisis for itself in Syria while it is focused on Ukraine.

Nonetheless, Western members of the Council and UN officials need to ready themselves for an end to the cross-border-mandate, either in July or at a later date. The original Council mandate for cross-border aid to Syria in 2014 was based on the assumption that rebel-controlled enclaves around the country were temporary phenomena, and the mandate as well. For now, it appears more likely that the Syrian conflict is moving into an extended stalemate with no clear military or political resolution on the horizon. Areas of northern Syria where millions of displaced Syrians live might remain outside government control – and in need of significant external aid – for some time to come. There is no guarantee that the Security Council will continue to renew the authorisation for cross-border aid indefinitely.

Donors, the UN and NGOs already have plans for the eventuality that the cross-border arrangements end. One option – even if the mandate is renewed – may be for OCHA to gradually wind down its delivery operations while continuing to play a smaller coordination role and helping build up the capacity of NGOs to supply aid to Idlib in place of UN agencies. In this case, a future Russian veto would do less damage to aid supplies than it would do today. For the time being, however, it is essential that the Security Council renew the mandate for cross-border aid to avoid a fresh humanitarian disaster in north-western Syria.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.