The Syrian regime vows to reconquer Idlib, the north-western zone hosting its hardest-core remaining jihadist opposition. But an all-out offensive would be calamitous. Turkey and Russia should recommit to their “de-escalation” deal for Idlib, bolstering it with measures that buy time for a lasting solution.
Fighting continued in Idlib in north west between pro-govt forces and jihadist and other opposition groups with high civilian toll; suspected Islamic State (ISIS) and govt kept up arson campaign in opposition-held areas in east; and Israel continued airstrikes in west. In north west, pro-govt forces and Russia maintained shelling and airstrikes on opposition areas, but with Turkey stepping up support, opposition managed to hold off offensive and retake some territories. Turkish-backed rebels National Liberation Front (NLF) and jihadist coalition Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), along with other opposition factions, 6 June launched counteroffensive against pro-govt forces, pushing south toward Hama province. Russia and Turkey 12 June brokered ceasefire between govt and opposition forces in Idlib, but fighting continued. In Idlib province, pro-govt forces 13 June attacked Turkish observation post, injuring three soldiers; 27 June attacked Turkish observation post killing soldier. In Hama province, heavy clashes 17-20 June left around 135 rebel and pro-govt fighters dead. UN 18 June reported over 230 civilians killed since early May. In north east, U.S. 4 June said Kurdish-led rebels Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Turkey had agreed in principle that SDF core Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) would withdraw from future safe zone. In east, fires continued to destroy crops around Manbij city and in Deir al-Zour and Raqqa provinces: SDF 1 June accused ISIS and govt of using arson against it. ISIS 5 June claimed bombing in Raqqa; 17 June claimed suicide bomber’s failed attempt to attack Kurdish internal security HQ in Qamishli; 23 June ambushed pro-govt militias in Al-Mayadin desert. In south west, in response to artillery fire, Israeli warplanes 1-2 June killed ten pro-govt forces in Golan Heights; same day killed five govt soldiers in Tiyas air base near Homs, allegedly targeting Iranian facility. State media 12 June claimed govt forces had shot down Israeli missiles near Golan Heights; 30 June reported Israeli strikes in Damascus and Homs, allegedly killing four civilians.
Russian mediation helped reduce bloodshed during the Assad regime’s reconquest of southern Syria. But for similar arrangements to work in remaining rebel strongholds, better security guarantees by outside powers are needed to prevent regime reprisals, improve aid flows and, down the road, facilitate refugee return.
Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, half of whom are under eighteen. Despite European aid, tensions are rising as the country strains to accommodate the influx. The answer is smarter integration policies aimed particularly at meeting the needs of vulnerable youth.
President Donald Trump has ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from north-east Syria. This risks chaos and drives home the urgent need for a deal that restores Syrian state sovereignty to its north east, assuages Turkish security concerns and allows for some degree of Kurdish self-rule.
Much of north-eastern Syria has been safe during the civil war. But in the event of U.S. military withdrawal, a mad scramble for control could be unleashed. Washington and Moscow should help their respective allies in Syria reach a decentralisation deal for the area.
Numerous signs point to an imminent Syrian regime offensive to recapture Idlib, the largest remaining rebel-held area. To ward off another humanitarian calamity, Russia, Iran and Turkey should immediately convene talks to extend the truce and seek other ways of removing Idlib’s jihadist hard core.
Idlib’s armed opposition may not be able to win an open battle for the northwest, but they can make a Syrian military victory terribly costly, maybe intolerably so.
Damascus is still evidently intent on taking the whole of Idlib, and all Syrian territory nationwide. But it’s Russia that’s enabled this latest military push, seemingly with more limited aims.
Idlib is a bargaining chip at this point and it’s extremely difficult to anticipate what happens next.
Too much of the public discussion around repatriating Western citizens, male or female, hinges on an assumption that letting them come home is equivalent to leniency or forgiveness.
Since February 2018, the Israeli-Iranian conflict visibly is no longer ‘cold'.
President Trump said the U.S. would withdraw from Syria, but apparently spontaneously, without prior planning or coordination inside the U.S. government or with Turkey.
Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.
Originally published in The Guardian
It’s easy to see why Britons are hostile to a teenage girl who went to Syria. But barring the door would feed the next round of jihadist recruiting.
Originally published in Bloomberg
Crisis Group’s third update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on economic reforms in Libya, preserving the fragile quiet in Syria’s Idlib province, addressing the plight of civilians in eastern Ukraine, supporting Colombia's uneasy peace process and averting violence in Nigeria's upcoming elections. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.
The Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey succeeded in averting a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue to provide diplomatic support for Turkey and engage directly with Russia to prevent an attack that would likely have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.