Syria: What must come next?

With the fragile ceasefire of Idlib seemingly coming to its last days, the worrying future of Syria concerns us here at the NCF.

The Syrian province of Idlib is the last rebel-held enclave in north-western Syria. Days prior to the Putin-Erdoğan summit, which attracted significant international attention, Russian forces increased air strikes around the region, which consequently caused Turkey to send reinforcements to Idlib. These events are significant developments in the Syrian conflict, with Turkish military vulnerability close to being exposed by the Russian-backed Syrian military. With control of a large majority of Syria, the Syrian government has exercised dominant force in its advance through Syria, which it looks to build upon and complete, the target being to capture Idlib. As this is the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria, the outcome of this upcoming conflict will be decisive, and will have huge ramifications for the future of Syria.

However, two weeks on from the expected full scale, the war in Idlib has yet to erupt. Why? Whilst there were vague comments made following the Putin-Erdoğan summit from both parties, speculation followed as to what the increasing tensions in Idlib held in store. What must be understood, is that there will be no conflict without Russian permission. The stalling taking place is in Putin’s interests, with Putin leveraging both Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and Turkish President Erdoğan. Although Russian-backed Syrian forces are stretching Turkey militarily in Idlib, they continue to hold back from capturing complete control, providing Turkey with just enough air to breathe. That said, advancing Syrian forces in Idlib convey a sense of progress to supporters of the Syrian government, yet the territory gained will increase only up to a point. With both parties appeased, Putin continues to pull the strings, generating the idea that he will create a new deal with President Bashar Al Assad and President Erdoğan to solidify Russia’s supreme position.

What remains a hugely significant factor within this impending Idlib conflict is the potential humanitarian disaster. Three million civilians are currently taking refuge in Idlib. An attack on Idlib will cause these already displaced Syrians to take refuge elsewhere, with their only option being Turkey. Already accepting approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees, the largest Syrian Refugee intake in the world, Turkey remains reluctant to host any more. This dramatic influx of refugees that may occur will cause a significant humanitarian crisis. There will just be simply too many to accommodate and protect, which will inevitably increase the state of insecurity.

And Meanwhile

Moreover, it is crucial to take note of recent diplomatic developments that have been made by the Syrian government, undoubtedly under the tutelage of Russia. Firstly, King Abdullah of Jordan received the first phone call from Syria’s Bashar Al Assad in ten years, which led to the re-opening of the Syria-Jordan border, allowing trade to resume between the two states. In addition to this, the UAE and Syria have agreed on future plans to enhance economic cooperation and explore new sectors, after the UAE’s economy minister met his Syrian counterpart on the side-lines of the Dubai Expo 2020.

In recent weeks also, Iran’s Foreign Minister held talks with Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad, after Iranian acknowledgment that the diplomatic atmosphere in the last months UN General Assembly showed that conditions had changed in favour of Syria. As a result, the Iranian Foreign Minister informed the Syrian president that they have envisioned a “sustainable economic development plan” that will be implemented regardless of whether US sanctions remain in place.

Lastly, Interpol has announced that it has reintegrated Syria into its information exchange network, lifting restrictions imposed on the Syrian government in 2012. Consequently, Damascus can now directly receive and send messages from other Interpol national offices, enhancing Syria’s international credibility and legitimacy. Whilst Bashar Al Assad may have dominated the military campaign in Syria, he now faces the bigger challenge of governing the state, with more than 80% of civilians living in poverty. Strengthening diplomatic ties across the region addresses this issue, creating hope for the future of Syria.

The issue of US policy in Syria is one of upmost significance to us at NCF. The US are yet another piece of the puzzle, but one that may provide a solution. Currently, US policy in Syria is wholly based upon the support of the YPG, the Syrian wing of the Kurdish forces, with specific focus upon the campaign to defeat ISIL (or Daesh). The north-east region of Syria, where the YPG reside, is the extent to which US policy is clear. Recent developments have emphasised US policy in Syria, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, underlining that the US have no plans to “normalise or upgrade” diplomatic relations with the Syrian government. Meanwhile, Ilham Ahmed, the head of the political arm of the YPG, announced that US support for their forces had never been clearer, solidifying the US’ stance in Syria. Common consensus within NCF Syria Working Group meetings, which involve both Syrians and Russians, highlight the necessity of a healthy channel of engagement on the American-Russian agreement about Syria, which would supposedly bring an end to the conflict. US influence was demonstrated in the opening of the Jordan-Syria border, with documents revealing that King Abdullah had authorisation from Biden and Putin to open the border. Additionally, with the Caesar sanctions in place, many regional actors have commented to the counter-productive nature in which Syrian developments are being hindered, conveying yet another way in which US influence remains. We, at NCF, urge the US government to expand their influence and objectives in Syria, to initiate true progress, to bring an end to the conflict.

Recent Turkish remarks following another YPG attack in Syria’s Azaz region, underscore a worrying future for the Syrian conflict. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated “we will cleanse this region of terrorists, we will do whatever is necessary for our security”, in response to the attacks. This disturbing message demonstrates that change must be imminent, and the protection of civilians must be the priority.

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