Syria: the current state of play

This is the NCF’s update on the current state of play in war-torn Syria:

Military offensive in the South-West

In the last three weeks, Syrian government forces – with significant Russian air support – have been sweeping through Deraa province in the south-west of Syria, the birthplace of the first uprisings in 2011. Following military losses near Damascus and Homs in recent months, losing Deraa province leaves only Idlib in the north-west as a notable rebel stronghold. In recent days, a number of towns in the south-west, like Dael and al-Ghariya al-Gharbiya, struck surrender deals with government forces independently of the main rebel factions. Last Friday, the pressure finally told: Ibrahim Jabawi, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army faction of the rebels, announced that surrender terms were agreed with Russia. Heavy weaponry will be handed over in return for a government retreat from a number of villages. This has paved the way for government forces to take control of the strategically important Nassib border crossing into Jordan, and reduces rebel held territory in the region to a thin corridor along the Jordanian border.

In the midst of the aerial bombardment of Tafas (northwest of Deraa) and Said (east of Deraa) on Wednesday, stop-start ceasefire talks failed to stem the flow of refugees out of the region. UN estimates put the number of people that have been uprooted since the offensive began at 320,000, though around 200,000 of them have now returned to their towns under Syrian government control. Those who fled for the Jordanian border had little luck: the Jordanian border has been closed since 2016 and the Jordanians maintain that they cannot take more than the 650,000 Syrians that have already arrived since the war began. Those headed towards the Golan border fence were extended humanitarian assistance, but expressly denied entry into Israel’s territory.

Turkish involvement in the North

In the coming months, attention will be turning to the likelihood that Idlib province in the north-west of Syria will experience a humanitarian disaster of even bigger proportions. The Free Syrian Army has been fortifying its defences in Idlib, with the help of Turkish troops who have been stationed along the front lines for over two months now. After the surrender negotiations in Deraa last week, the Free Syrian Army said they had been warned by the Russians that only slaughter awaited them in Idlib. The range of actors who will be involved in any armed conflict in Idlib means that it has the ingredients to become the most brutal, and likely the final military flashpoint in the Syrian War.

Turkey’s determination to remove what it regards as the threat posed by an autonomous Kurdish region on their southern frontier has meant that the Turkish presence in the north of Syria continues to be felt. This will be a great cause for concern for Syrian government forces once they start looking north again. Since the Turkish military and its Free Syrian Army allies led “Operation Olive Branch” on January 20, YPG Kurdish fighters have been driven from Afrin along with much of the population and Turkey has quickly consolidated its hold on the region. The most recent UN estimates show that over 167,000 people have been displaced from Afrin since the Turkish offensive began. The city has been ravaged by looting and seizures of property by Turkish-backed rebels, with Turkish forces resettling their fighters into the empty homes belonging to the displaced people of Afrin.

Turkish-controlled areas of Syria now make up 3460 square kilometres of occupied land, including some 500 towns and villages. Furthermore, the way the Turkish language has come to dominate police training, schooling, and hospitals in Afrin indicates that President Erdogan has no intention of heeding the warning from US Senator Lindsey Graham and others against sustained Turkish involvement in Syria. This conflict has pitted America’s most reliable ally on the ground in Syria, the Kurdish YPG forces, against a NATO ally in Turkey. Managing this delicate balance will be crucial for any long-term settlements for the area: in the last month the US and Turkey have been working on a deal for a joint military presence in Northern Syria, “to ensure stability” in an area that was fairly stable before Turkey arrived – while keeping YPG fighters confined to an area well east of the Euphrates river.

Iranian influence

Meanwhile Iran’s presence in Syria shows no sign of waning. As much as the US and Israel may rail against a long-term Iranian presence in Syria – in particular anywhere near the Golan Heights – Iran’s investment in Syria is by now too deeply entrenched to be sacrificed in a withdrawal any time soon. Some estimates as to how much money Iran has ploughed into its Syrian project suggest it has been as much as $150bn.

Losing influence in Syria is not an option for Iran. To withdraw from Syria now would cut off the direct land route to Lebanon and Hezbollah, thereby threatening the collapse of Iran’s broader ambitions in countries such as Iraq and indeed in the Middle East as a whole.

Israel’s anxiousness

As the fighting has veered towards the south-western region of Syria, Israel has become increasingly anxious. It has echoed UN complaints regarding Syrian armed incursions into the de-militarised zones on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line on the occupied Golan. Israel demonstrated militarily that it did not like having Iranian forces or their Hezbollah proxies near the current border on the Golan. Following the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran launched a rocket attack on the part of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel. The next day, Israel responded with a carefully orchestrated missile attack on multiple Iranian targets in Syria with very modest numbers of casualties. Last week, Israel appears to have fired two further missiles at targets near Damascus airport.

Israel has also now reinforced its tank and artillery deployment on the Golan. Syria of course already deploys large forces on the Syrian side of the Golan cease fire line and has always done so. Indeed it was an area used to station forces that were predominantly Sunni. Only forces of the Syrian Army whose loyalty was beyond question have been used in the civil war. The rest have been barracked on the Golan throughout. It is possible that more Syrian government forces will move from Deraa towards Quneitra on the Golan. But it seems more likely that attention will turn to the north. While Hezbollah has been involved in the assault on Deraa, it has still maintained a relatively low profile on the Golan. In the unlikely event that this begins to change, we can expect to see Israeli wariness turn into hostility.  But it would seem more likely that Hezbollah’s eyes will turn to the Turkish invasion in the north.

Remains of ISIL

Once perceived as the most significant threat to the West in Syria, the presence of ISIL is now limited to al-Hajar al Aswad (south of Damascus) and Albu Kamal. It does, however, command the area of the triple border point between Israel, Syria and Jordan, with around 80,000 civilians under its control there.

The beginning of the end

As far as the Syrian Revolution goes, developments in the last few months have dealt it a series of telling blows. The more momentum that is gained on President Assad’s side, the fewer incentives there are for temporary ceasefires. The way the rebels have been abandoned by the United States during the south-western offensive stands in stark contrast to the decisive support provided to Assad by his Russian and Iranian allies.

For the first time since the war began, the Syrian government is removing several roadblocks that restricted the movement of its people. Russia are also aiming to bring stability to Damascus by dissolving various pro-government militias and integrating their members into government military units. There is a growing acceptance in the air that Free Syrian Army strongholds are all but disappearing, and the government is gearing towards a settlement from which Syria can begin its daunting rebuilding process. In the meantime, there will surely be more slaughter and more displacement. At this stage, international efforts must be focused on avoiding an even more dangerous escalation in the north in the coming months.


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