The Syrian conflict since 2011 is a constellation of overlapping crises. Each of its global, regional and sub-national dimensions demands a tailored response set within an overarching framework. Instead, chronic violence and worsening suffering have killed more than 250,000 people, fueling radicalisation, refugee flight and a self-sustaining war economy. Outside stakeholders must learn from the way the Syrian conflict has repeatedly dashed unrealistic expectations on all sides. Crisis Group pursues a comprehensive approach for achieving a sustainable decline in violence and, ultimately, a political settlement. We also seek to correct dominant narratives that focus on jihadism and migrant flows, which are the symptoms, rather than the causes, of the problem.
Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Ankara has been drawn ever deeper into the crisis. Its approach will likely hold steady for now. But the choices it makes next matter for the fate of millions of Syrians.
Hostilities in north west and Türkiye’s operations in north east continued at lower intensity, Islamic State (ISIS) maintained deadly desert insurgency, and Israel, U.S. and Iran-backed groups traded fire amid Gaza war.
In north west, fighting eased. Hostilities between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and regime gradually returned to levels before escalation triggered by 5 Oct attack on Homs military academy. Nevertheless, Russian airstrikes 11 Nov continued in Idlib province, regime continued shelling south of M5 highway and suspected HTS suicide drone attacks on army positions persisted; drone attack 18 Nov killed regime colonel at Aleppo military college.
In north east, Türkiye continued intermittent strikes. After ending major air campaign late Oct against Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated targets, Turkish drone strike 15 Nov reportedly killed three militants near Kobane city, Aleppo province. Türkiye 17 Nov announced killing PKK’s “ideological division manager”. Four drone strikes 23-25 Nov hit vehicles across north east, killing veteran PKK commander.
ISIS exacted high toll on regime forces in centre. ISIS maintained high-level of attacks, making Nov deadliest month for pro-regime security forces in central desert in 2023. Notably, fighting around Doubayat gas field, Homs province, early Nov killed over dozen Iran-backed Afghan fighters. Two ISIS attacks 8 Nov killed at least 30 pro-govt militants and soldiers. ISIS cells expanded operations to Kawm axis between Sukhnah town, Homs, and Resafa town, Raqqa, and 11 Nov besieged regime forces. ISIS militants 22, 24 Nov conducted rare attacks inside regime-held towns along Euphrates.
Syria saw Israel-Hizbollah clashes and hostilities between U.S. and Iran-backed forces. Suspected Hizbollah drone from near Homs city 9 Nov targeted school in Israeli city Eilat; in response, Israeli airstrikes 10 Nov killed at least seven Hizbollah members south of Homs. Rockets 11, 14 Nov targeted northern Israel, triggering retaliatory shelling. Israeli airstrikes 22 Nov reportedly killed two Hizbollah affiliates near Damascus. Israel 26 Nov again incapacitated Damascus International Airport. Meanwhile, Iranian and Iran-backed forces continued dozens of attacks on U.S. positions, including rocket strike 29 Nov; U.S. 8, 12 Nov retaliated by striking two targets in Deir ez-Zor, killing at least eight in latter.
Turkey is highly unlikely to compromise on troop withdrawal [from northern Syria].
It's important to remember that [Syrian president] Assad's return to the Arab League is a symbolic measure to begin the process of ending his regional isolation.
The U.S. and Europe have made it clear that they do not agree with Arab states normalizing with the Assad regime, but there doesn’t seem to be much they can do about it.
The UAE has, since 2021, embarked on a policy of diminishing tensions with other countries in the region, and normalizing with Assad is part of that.
If the UN fails to extend its operation [in Syria] via these [Turkish border] crossings, donor states should bypass the UN and do bilateral assistance themselves.
Whenever the American forces there [in Syria] are attacked, the question arises again: Why are they there?
The League of Arab States welcomed President Bashar al-Assad to its May summit, reinstating Syria’s membership, which it had suspended in 2011. The regime may look to have shrugged off the international opprobrium it earned for its brutality in repressing its opponents. But has it?
The rebels who control north-western Syria are dealing harshly with ISIS cells but have not yet crushed them entirely. The best way to stop jihadists from rebounding is to consolidate the area’s ceasefire. Outside powers can also help by sending more humanitarian aid.
Its self-declared caliphate is gone, but ISIS continues to stage attacks and intimidate the public in much of its former domain. The forces fighting the group need to hinder the militants’ movement between Syria’s regions – and, above all, to avoid debilitating conflicts with one another.
To prevent ISIS from resurging, forces fighting the group should stop it from moving across regions and avoid conflict with one another. This timeline catalogues some of the major ISIS attacks and counter-ISIS operations from 2017 to February 2022.
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.
This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to experts Dareen Khalifa and Jerome Drevon about ISIS in Syria after the death of its leader Abdullah Qardash, the precarious calm that prevails across the country and the evolution of al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in the north west, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Aleppo was devastated by bombing and shelling during the Syrian war. It remains unsafe, with residents subject to shakedowns by the regime’s security forces and various militias. Damascus and its outside backers should curb this predation as a crucial first step toward the city’s recovery.
Turkey is increasingly relying on airpower in its fight against the PKK. New parties have been drawn into the conflict as it spreads to new theatres in Iraq and Syria, which, for now at least, complicates potential efforts to settle things down.
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