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Syria

The following text forms part of Crisis Group’s Early Warning Watch List for December 2015, compiled for the European Union (EU) and its member states to provide analysis and updates on conflicts, and on opportunities for preventive action. Each Watch List identifies up to ten countries or conflicts which are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak or intensification of conflict or crisis – or which in some cases offer an opportunity for prevention or resolution – in the following six to twelve months.

Each country or conflict is chosen from the 70 crisis situations monitored by Crisis Group and regularly reported on in CrisisWatch; the choice of countries is representative of a range of conflicts and is not meant to be all-inclusive or a ranking of deadly violence. Each country summary contains an outline of recent developments and forthcoming events that may increase risks, and lays out opportunities for action for national, regional and international actors, in particular the EU and its member states.


Overview

Russia’s dramatic military escalation in autumn 2015 provided the Assad regime with a political boost and improved morale, but early results on the ground appear mixed. While Moscow portrays its efforts as directed primarily against the Islamic State (IS), in reality the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes and Russian-backed offensives have targeted opposition factions that oppose IS. Russia’s decision to ramp up its direct military role only worsened the humanitarian crisis, increased refugee flows, including toward Europe, and preceded the extension of IS operations outside the Syrian-Iraqi theatre, including the November Paris attacks. Together, these developments have added urgency, particularly among European countries, to efforts to engage Ankara – both over refugee issues and its dangerous escalation with Moscow, prompted by Turkey’s rash downing of a Russian aircraft that it claimed had entered its airspace. Syria’s external stakeholders attempted a new diplomatic process with two meetings in Vienna in October and November but left unaddressed the fundamental question of whether Assad rule should end and, if so, at what point during the transition.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Continue to resist calls for “counter-terror” cooperation with President Assad – such cooperation would only exacerbate matters, as the regime’s reliance on collective punishment and sectarian militias is a key driver of radicalisation, and thus jihadi recruitment.
  • Prioritise bringing an end to the regime’s indiscriminate aerial bombardment, the biggest killer of civilians. Amid Russia’s escalated support for the regime, Western diplomacy should aim both to convince Moscow that a sustainable political resolution including a transition from Assad rule remains the only way to end the war, and to pressure Damascus to halt indiscriminate air attacks.
  • Refrain from increasing military cooperation with Russia in Syria, absent a fundamental shift in Moscow’s priorities and approach. So long as Russia’s intervention remains focused on anti-IS opposition forces, any potential value of increased cooperation will be outweighed by the likely costs: strengthening the jihadi narrative while weakening mainstream opposition forces that will ultimately be needed as partners against IS.
  • EU states supporting the Syrian opposition should work with its armed and political components, the U.S., Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to develop a body capable of credibly representing the opposition in negotiations. This body should better reflect the weight of non-jihadi armed groups on the ground than do existing political entities; ultimately, buy-in from these factions will be essential to implementing any political resolution and rolling back jihadi groups.

Background

Russia’s direct military intervention since September has increased both its leverage in Syria and the risk of escalatory cycles and miscalculation among the several states backing the warring sides. Those dangers were on full display in late November, as Turkey downed a Russian warplane along its border with Syria, claiming it had violated its airspace and ignored warnings to change course. Though both sides sought to downplay the likelihood of additional direct military confrontation, in the days that followed, Russia further increased airstrikes targeting rebel forces backed by Turkey and opposed to both the regime and IS, including in areas of northern Syria near the Turkish border.

Though Moscow bills its efforts as focused on IS, in reality it is dedicating most of its military resources against other rebel groups – including mainstream factions backed covertly by the U.S. For now at least, Moscow appears to be increasing its direct investment in the regime’s existing strategy, rather than trying to fundamentally shift it. That strategy employs a smattering of strikes against IS and intense rhetorical focus on defeating vaguely-defined “terrorists”, as cover for an effort that aims, first and foremost, to cripple other rebel factions. The apparent goals are to strengthen and expand the regime’s hold on territory in strategically vital western Syria; weaken groups that receive support from the opposition’s state backers (including those which might at some point be considered candidates for more robust U.S. backing); and thus pressure Western countries toward acceptance of (and potential cooperation with) continued Assad rule by depicting the regime as the most viable partner against IS and other transnational jihadi groups.

On the ground, the scorecard for regime and allied military efforts since the Russian escalation has been mixed. Russian airpower is backing ground offensives carried out by the Syrian army, allied Syrian militias, Hizbollah, pro-Iran foreign Shiite militias, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel. This pro-regime coalition has escalated its engagement on multiple fronts since Russian strikes began, exploiting rebels’ limited capacity for coordination across different theatres. Yet initial regime gains have been modest, and matched by setbacks elsewhere. U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles deployed by mainstream groups vetted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency have proven highly effective in enabling rebels to defend against regime advances. Moreover, increased allied support, while enabling regime forces to arrest rebel momentum, is probably not a sufficient (or sustainable) long-term solution to the regime’s worsening manpower shortages: five years of conflict have shown that ever-rising support from Iran, Hizbollah and Russia has merely served to compensate for the regime’s gradual erosion, but failed to stop or reverse it. Meanwhile, regime barrel bombing and other aerial collective punishment tactics have continued alongside Russian airstrikes; as a result, Western states should expect Syria’s radicalisation and displacement problems to continue to worsen.

However ambiguous the results on the battlefield, Russia’s escalation has helped spur an intensification of diplomatic coordination with Washington. During two gatherings in Vienna in late October and mid-November, foreign ministers representing the war’s key external players, including for the first time Iran, agreed to push the regime and opposition back to the negotiating table – as part of a political process aiming to achieve newly credible governance, a nationwide ceasefire, a new constitution and elections over the course of eighteen months. Though relatively specific on timelines, the organising documents agreed to are vague on much else, and there is little reason to expect this effort will fare better than the failed 2014 “Geneva II” process. Like Geneva II, Vienna is based on a narrow consensus between state backers of each side, in particular the U.S. and Russia, that does not include the key political question in Syria – whether a transition will bring an end to Assad rule. That remains a gaping hole around which it will be very difficult to build.

Another missing component in the Vienna process is a vehicle capable of representing the non-jihadi opposition on the ground. A range of armed opposition factions, including leading Islamists, which express commitment to a pluralistic Syria, are interested in engaging in a political process, and enjoy significant power on the ground. Their weight and interests are not currently reflected in any opposition political body. That is a critical shortcoming, since reaching a viable political resolution will require an opposition coalition capable of credibly negotiating, implementing any deal on the ground, and protecting it from jihadi spoilers.

Meanwhile, the focus in Western capitals (and in Washington in particular) remains on IS. Though it scored significant gains with the captures of Ramadi (in Iraq) and Palmyra (in Syria) in May, it lost momentum in the months that followed and is now increasingly hard-pressed to defend ground on the fringes of its territory. The problem for the U.S. and its allies, however, is that their efforts against IS in Syria have become increasingly dependent upon Kurdish forces linked to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents, whose military and political marginalisation of local Sunni Arabs has fuelled resentment and could ultimately work to IS’s advantage. Moving forward, significant, lasting gains against IS in Syria will require Sunni Arab ground forces with local credibility – in some cases, the very same forces who are currently bearing the brunt of regime and Russian bombardment. This is yet another reminder of an unavoidable truth, however inconvenient: the struggle against IS cannot be detached from the broader Syrian war.


Read the full Watch List for December 2015 (pdf).

Learn more about the Watch List.


Note: The Watch List is produced as part of the project “Strengthening Early Warning and Mobilising Early Action”, co-funded by the European Union. The project aims to strengthen the links between early warning, conflict analysis and early response, and to build civil society’s capacity for early warning.

The Crisis Group EU Early Warning Watch List is one of many products the organisation produces to alert policy makers and the general public on unfolding crisis or conflicts, and which offers them solutions to support conflict prevention, management and resolution initiatives.

 
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