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Syria: what next?

Published Monday, March 12, 2018

the battle against ISIS in Syria has been largely won, yet the violence may even be getting worse.

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With almost all its territory in Syria gone, ISIS/Daesh has become more like an insurgent group; the old ‘Islamic State’ with all the extra threat that holding territory meant, is no more. The Assad Government in Syria looks as if it will survive, supported by Iranian-backed ground forces and Russian air power.

Increasing violence

Any thoughts that these developments mean the outbreak of peace would be over-optimistic, however. As the ISIS threat has diminished, the Syrian Government and its allies have turned their attention to remaining strongholds of the Syrian opposition and other extremist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, linked to al-Qaeda.

The four de-escalation zones established by the Russian-led Astana political negotiations process have not all achieved their stated goal of maintaining ceasefires. While Homs and the far southwest have been relatively calm, massive destruction has been unleashed in recent weeks on Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.

Eastern Ghouta is a suburb of Damascus that is home to some 400,000 people and it is the last pocket of resistance to the Government near the capital. It has been under siege since 2013 but the increased tempo of violence in the last few weeks has killed hundreds of people. The UN says that actions in Eastern Ghouta and elsewhere in Syria are probably war crimes. The Security Council voted unanimously for a month-long ceasefire on 24 February but short daily ceasefires organised by Russia, with artillery fire continuing, have not been enough to make much difference. One corridor was established to allow civilians to leave Ghouta, but residents are scared to leave, wary of revenge killings.

Even messier?

The defeat of ISIS and the survival of the Assads were something that Iran, Russia and the Syrian government could agree on and Turkey, long opposed to the Assads, has been more concerned about the establishment of a possibly hostile Kurdish entity along its southern border.

With the unifying enemy of ISIS largely side-lined, violence is, if anything, increasing, as involved countries compete for influence in a post-conflict Syria, and Russia may be finding it more difficult to control its Syrian client than expected.

As Iran seeks to maximise a lasting military presence in Syria, the prospect of confrontations increases. Israel wants to keep Hizbollah away from its border with Syria and sees the establishment of Iranian military facilities in Syria as an unacceptable threat. And they have already conducted strikes inside Syria against alleged Iran convoys of arms for Hizbollah and military facilities.

As Turkey’s increasingly nationalist government takes military action in the north of Syria against Syrian Kurdish YPG, who they say are a branch of the Turkish Kurdish PKK insurgents, they are confronting US-backed forces, a troubling situation for two NATO allies. The Turkish military action in Afrin, however, has run into difficulty as the Kurds, supported by Moscow, have turned to the Syrian Government for protection from Turkish forces. The Kurds have pulled fighters back from the battle against the remnants of ISIS to concentrate on Afrin.

The US, supporting its Kurdish allies, retains a hold on significant territory in the east of the country but that alliance has been shaken by the Turkish action in Afrin.

Chemical weapons

There have been continuing reports of chemical weapons being used: mustard gas, chlorine and even Sarin, the most deadly of these toxins, have used, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons.

Refugees and international assistance

According to the UN, 13.1 million people need humanitarian aid, including almost 3 million people in need trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. 6.5 million people have been driven from their homes to other places in Syria; well over 1.2 million have been displaced this year alone.

The UN Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria needs $3.5 billion and as at 28 February $3.3 billion of that remained unmet. The UK had by February 2018 allocated £487 million for work in Syria to UN agencies and £65 million to NGOs for the financial year 2017/18.

British contribution to the campaign against ISIS

ISIS has lost 98% of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria and in December 2017 the Iraqi government declared military victory over ISIS. The situation in Syria remains complex, with operations to defeat ISIS complicated by the ongoing Syrian civil conflict. The Coalition has committed to maintaining its military commitments in Iraq and Syria. While tracking down remaining ISIS fighters remains a priority, the military campaign has shifted towards stabilisation, capacity-building and training.

For more on this, see the Commons Briefing Paper ISIS/Daesh: what now for the military campaign in Iraq and Syria?, March 2018

Other relevant Commons Briefing Papers include:

Iran update 2018, February 2018

Lebanon 2018, January 2018

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8247

Author: Ben Smith

Topic: Middle East

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