The Delicate State of Affairs in Syria
Written by Steven Tibbitts
Syria is an incredibly strategic theater for the United States and the international community, but recent events threaten to create interstate conflict, disunity among US allies, and major humanitarian crises (Agence France-Presse 2018).
The Syrian province of Idlib is currently experiencing an extremely uneasy truce between government forces and the myriad rebel groups occupying the Syrian rebels’ last major base of operations (Najjar 2018; Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center 2018; Agence France-Presse 2018). The main players in the region are the US, Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian government, and a variety of nonstate fighting groups (Osborn and Barrington 2018). Due to years of international neglect for moderate rebel groups, continual population transfer deals by the Syrian government, and years of funding from Gulf countries, many of Idlib’s rebel groups have jihadist leanings (Lund 2017; Phillips 2018). The most powerful one, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, was formerly al-Qaeda’s proxy in Syria (Jansen 2018; Lister 2018). Other rebel groups are part of the more moderate National Liberation Front, which is under Turkey’s direction (Najjar 2018). Turkey’s military controls swathes of northern Syria and possesses large economic influence there (Asharq Al-Awsat 2018).
In September, a ceasefire deal negotiated by Turkey and Russia created a buffer zone in Idlib to prevent a regime assault (Osborn and Barrington 2018; Najjar 2018). Russia and Turkey were to each patrol the Idlib border to prevent fighting, while rebel groups were to move their heavy weapons away from the buffer zone; however, there have been compliance problems from both regime forces and jihadists (Osborn and Barrington 2018; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 2018). The sustainability of the ceasefire depends on both the efforts and intentions of the main state-players—if Russia and Syria decide that their forces are prepared for an assault, it is unlikely that the deal will stop them. Meanwhile, there are radical jihadists in Idlib who could pose a severe threat to the United States; however, an indiscriminate and bloody assault from Russian, Iranian, and Syrian forces like previous campaigns could exacerbate the humanitarian situation in Idlib and strengthen the hand of radicals in the area (Al-Assil 2017).
Farther north, the situation is compounded by the tensions between the Turkish forces and the Kurds. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed primarily of Turkish YPG fighters, have been the US’s main ally in the fight against ISIS (Idiz 2018; New Arab 2018). However, Turkey, also a US ally, considers the SDF connected to the Kurdish terrorist group PPK, and has launched two military campaigns in recent years to wipe out Kurdish territorial holdings in northern Syria, which represent about 30% of Syrian land (Idiz 2018). Turkey shelled Kurdish military installations this week in a prelude to its threatened campaign to attack the Kurds on the eastern side of the Euphrates; the result was the SDF redeploying troops from its fight against ISIS in the east to frontlines near Turkey (Idiz 2018; France 24 2018; ISW 2018; New Arab 2018). The US and Turkey have started joint military patrols around the disputed city of Manbij, but the inherent awkwardness of the US position is manifest in continued fighting between its two main allies in the region (Erkoyun, Said, Perry, and Barrington 2018; Idiz 2018).
The US has continued the fight against ISIS in eastern Syria, with a recent focus on retaking the city of Hajin near the Iraqi border (Liveaumap 2018; France 24 2018). However, the group is still active in the region and putting up a hard fight, while the recent Turkish shelling led Kurdish authorities to redeploy troops towards Turkey rather than continuing in Hajin (France 24 2018; ISW 2018).
Dangers abound from instability in Syria. Like a pollical kaleidoscope, each week in Syria presents new ways for the US, Russia, Iran, Israel, and Turkey to stumble into interstate conflict (Yacoubian 2018; Holmes 2018; Roth 2018). The possibility of renewed fighting in Idlib and potential intensified conflict between the Kurds and the Turks could weaken the front against Iranian and Russian aggression and fragment international attempts to sort between moderate and radical rebel groups in northern Syria. Russia and Iran are expanding beyond military assistance to reconstruction and development work, signifying their intent to use Syria as a base for future expansionism and influence spreading (Bassiki 2018; Brown 2018). The dangers of a humanitarian crisis and mass refugee exodus in Idlib would be multiplied by any new fighting, which a single ceasefire violation could trigger (Agence France-Presse 2018; Kabalan 2018). Additionally, ISIS and al-Qaeda also remain potent threats in Idlib, and any conflict can distract attention from targeting these terror groups or feed their propaganda.
Agence France-Presse. 2018. “Syria summit: call for ‘lasting ceasefire’ at last rebel-held stronghold, Idlib.” The Guardian, October 27. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/27/syria-leaders-call-for-ceasefire-at-last-rebel-held-stronghold-idlib
Al-Assil, Ibrahim. 2017. “Al-Qaeda Affiliate and Ahrar al-Sham Compete for Control in Idlib.” Middle East Institute, June 29. Accessed March 10, 2018. http://www.mei.edu/content/article/al-qaeda-affiliate-and-ahrar-al-sham-compete-control-idlib
Al-Sharif, Osama. 2018. “Jordan, Syria reopen border.” Al-Monitor, October 17. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/10/jordan-syria-nassib-border-crossing-trade-economy.html
Asharq al-Awsat. 2018. “In Syria’s North, Turkey Deepens Roots, Spreads Influence.” Asharq Al-Awsat, October 30. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1442761/syrias-north-turkey-deepens-roots-spreads-influence
Bassiki, Mohammad. 2018. “Iran sets sights on Syrian reconstruction projects.” Al-Monitor, October 24. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/10/iran-reconstruction-syria-process-electricity-priority-debt.html
Brown, Frances Z. 2018. “Dilemmas of Stabilization Assistance: The Case of Syria.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 26. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/10/26/dilemmas-of-stabilization-assistance-case-of-syria-pub-77574
Erkoyun, Ezgi, Rodi Said, Tom Perry, and Lisa Barrington. 2018. “Turkey starts joint patrols with U.S. forces in Syria’s Manbij.” Retuers, November 1. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey-usa/turkey-starts-joint-patrols-with-u-s-forces-in-syrias-manbij-idUSKCN1N6574
France 24. 2018. “US-backed Syria force suspends anti-IS attacks after Turkey hits.” France 24, October 31. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.france24.com/en/20181031-us-backed-syria-force-suspends-anti-attacks-after-turkey-hits
Hassan, Muhammed. 2018. “The SDF’s Attempts at Local Governance in Deir Ezzor Have Failed.” Chatham House, September. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://syria.chathamhouse.org/research/the-sdfs-attempts-at-local-governance-in-deir-ezzor-have-failed
Holmes, Oliver. 2018. “The Syrian airbase at the heart of a potential Israel-Iran war.” The Guardian, May 1. Accessed November 2, 2018.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/01/the-syrian-airbase-at-the-heart-of-a-potential-israel-iran-war
Institute for the Study of War. 2018. “Syria Situation Report: October 11 – 24, 2018 .” Institute for the Study of War, October 26. Accessed October 27, 2018. http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2018/10/syria-situation-report-october-11-24.html
Idiz, Semih. 2018. “Northern Syria heats up as next likely US-Turkey flashpoint.” Al-Monitor, November 1. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/10/turkey-syria-usa-manbij-may-be-next-flashpoint-in-ties.html
Jaber, Raed. 2018. “Russia continues to provide Syria with S-300, Warns of ‘Provocation.’” Asharq Al-Awsat, November 1. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1445756/russia-continues-provide-syria-s-300-warns-provocation
Jansen, Michael. 2018. “Turkey boosts presence in Idlib amid ceasefire plan.” Irish Times, September 25. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/middle-east/turkey-boosts-presence-in-idlib-amid-ceasefire-plan-1.3641241
Kabalan, Marwan. 2018. “Russia’s new game in Syria.” Al-Jazeera, October 29. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/istanbul-summit-failed-181029102112796.html
Lister, Charles. 2018. “How al-Qa`ida Lost Control of its Syrian Affiliate: The Inside Story.” CTC Sentinel 11, no. 2 (February): 1-9. Accessed March 10, 2018. https://ctc.usma.edu/al-qaida-lost-control-syrian-affiliate-inside-story/
Liveuamap. 2018. “Syria.” Liveuamap. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://syria.liveuamap.com/en/2018/31-october-at-1900-turkish-armored-vehicle-attacked-village
Lund, Aron. 2017. “How Assad’s Enemies Gave Up on the Syrian Opposition.” Century Foundation, October 17. Accessed November 3, 2018.
Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. 2018. “Spotlight on Global Jihad (October 18-27, 2018).” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, November 1. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/spotlight-global-jihad-october-18-27-2018/
Najjar, Farah. 2018. “Syria: Rebels comply and pull heavy weapons out of Idlib.” Al-Jazeera, October 10. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/10/syria-war-rebels-complete-heavy-arms-pullout-idlib-zone-181010145807507.html
New Arab. 2018. “US-backed force halt anti-IS operation following Turkey strikes in Syria.” The New Arab, October 31. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2018/10/31/us-backed-force-halt-anti-is-operation-following-turkey-strikes
Osborn, Andrew and Lisa Barrington. 2018. “Russia says militants trying to wreck deal over Syria’s Idlib: Ifax.” Reuters, November 1. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-idlib/russia-says-militants-trying-to-wreck-deal-over-syrias-idlib-ifax-idUSKCN1N656A
Phillips, Christopher. 2018. “The World Abetted Assad’s Victory in Syria.” Atlantic, August 4. Accessed November 3, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/assad-victory-syria/566522/
Roth, Andrew. 2018. “Russian officials warn of possible military clash with US over Syria.” The Guardian, April 10. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/10/russian-officials-warn-of-possible-military-clash-with-us-over-syria
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 2018. ““Jaysh Abu Bakr al-Seddiq” of Ahrar al-Sham carries out the first attack in the demilitarized zone in east Idlib sector since Putin – Erdogan agreement.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 1. Accessed November 1, 2018. http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=105717
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 2018. “Violations impose themselves strongly on the Russian – Turkish truce scene in the four provinces.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 1. Accessed November 1, 2018. http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=105729
Trenin, Dmitri. 2018. “The New Cold War Is Boiling Over in Syria.” Foreign Policy, April 14. Accessed April 16, 2018. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/14/the-new-cold-war-is-boiling-over-in-syria/
Yacoubian, Mona. 2018. “U.S. Policy Toward Syria: Part I.” United States Institute of Peace, September 28. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://www.usip.org/publications/2018/09/us-policy-toward-syria-part-i