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Idlib and the prospects for Syria

Published Friday, October 12, 2018

Idlib, the last stronghold of rebel forces in Syria, has been saved from a full on attack for now, but the civil war phase of the conflict is almost over. What might happen afterwards?

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Idlib

The fears of a disaster of enormous proportions in Idlib have been lessened by the agreement between Russia and Turkey establishing a demilitarised zone between the city, filled with Sunni refugees and other civilians and Islamist fighters, and pro-Government forces. The Islamist fighters in Idlib range from former members of the Free Syria Army to former (and possibly current) affiliates of al-Qaeda, and under the plan they must withdraw from the demilitarised zone by 15 October 2018.

Turkey and Russia agreed to the plan on 17 September 2017, to prevent the Syrian Government’s armed forces, aided by Russian air power, from mounting a full-scale attack. The city and its region are the last stronghold of opponents to Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Turkey’s motivation was to prevent a surge of refugees towards its border, which it would see as a severe security threat. Turkey is also close to some of the Islamist fighting groups in the city. While raising Turkey’s profile in the conflict, the agreement presents a big challenge to Ankara, which must oversee the disarmament and disbandment of any groups seen as terrorist. This means principally Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Tahrir al-Sharm has indicated that it will not disarm, and many of its fighters are battle-hardened and determined.

Israel and Russia

As attention was focused on Idlib, a Russian reconnaissance aircraft was brought down by a Syrian surface-to-air missile. Israeli aircraft had been attacking an installation near Latakia on the Mediterranean that it said was involved in transferring arms from Iran to Hezballah. Syria launched air defence missiles, but they hit a Russian plane that was operating nearby. Russian authorities initially blamed the Israelis but later gave a more measured reaction, announcing the transfer of a more modern air defence system, the S300, whose transfer had been suspended at Israel’s request since 2011. Although the rhetoric was toned down, the events marked a distinct shift in Russo-Israeli relations.

Iran and Israel

Israel insists that it will not allow Iran to establish a military presence in Syria and will not allow weaponry to be transferred to Hezballah. Russia has been trying to limit Iran’s role in Syria, partly to promote its own role in the country and party so as not to provoke Israel into intervening more directly in the war. Israel, meanwhile has shifted from outright condemnation of Bashar al-Assad to a limited welcome for the re-establishment of government control near the Israeli border.

In August 2018, Damascus and Iran reportedly signed a deal for further military cooperation, and Iran, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are increasingly embedded in Syrian security institutions. Many analysts fear that Israel could be heading for more confrontation with Iran in Syria (and Lebanon).

Russia and Iran

What does that mean for the Russia-Iran alliance that has saved Syria for the Assad government? Russia and Iran have diverging interests, particularly in relation to Israel, with whom Russia is reluctant to pick a fight, and the person of Bashar al-Assad, whom Iran is probably keener to keep in place than is Russia. Nevertheless, they both want Syria’s territorial integrity maintained and Damascus kept as an ally. They are both opposed to the US.

Those shared interests might be enough to keep the alliance together.

Iran’s alliance with Moscow certainly looks robust in comparison with the Israel/Russia understanding, but Moscow’s influence on Tehran is limited, particularly since Russia is drawing down some troops. Russia might want to reduce Iran’s role in Syria but it may not have the influence to achieve that.

ISIS and the International Coalition

ISIS may have lost most of its territory, but it still operates as an organisation, although in a decentralised way. ISIS still has a land-based presence in eastern Syria, in the Deir al-Zour Governorate, where it controls several towns, but its most threatening presence is in poorly-governed spaces such as Libya and Afghanistan.

The US, the UK, France and various other nations are still participating in the international coalition against ISIS. The US has about 2,000 troops stationed along the Euphrates River, where they collaborate with Kurdish troops to fight ISIS.

Syria and the political process

The Astana Process political negotiations, begun in January 2017, formed the basis for cooperation between Russia, Syria and Turkey on various violence reduction initiatives. The process is supported by the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and Russia says that it contributes to the UN-backed Geneva process. The representation of the opposition in the Astana process is very weak, however. The selection of opposition representatives is highly restrictive and even those that have attended Astana process meetings have resisted talking to the Syrian Government.

The latest round of the Astana Process, held in Sochi, Russia, took place in July. There was no progress on the main item on the agenda: forming a committee to draft a new Constitution, composed of the Syrian Government, the opposition, and civil society. A presidential election is due in 2021.

One of the Government’s strategies for ensuring its survival in a country apparently dominated by Sunni opponents to its rule is to reduce the number of Sunni oppositionists by discouraging the return of refugees it views as a threat.

Humanitarian situation

The suffering of the Syrian people remains dire. 5.6 million of them have fled the country. 13.1 million are in need of humanitarian aid, 6.1 million are internally displaced and 6.5 million people are food insecure. There are nearly 3 million people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas, according to the UN.

The UK has stepped up its humanitarian aid response including preparing for any offensive on Idlib. UK funding for the opposition, including Free Syrian Police, has been cut because the conditions on the ground are too difficult.

Outlook

While the end of the civil war phase may be nearing, it may be some time before peace reigns across the whole of Syria.

Kurdish representatives now signal that they expect Assad to survive and have started negotiating to keep some autonomy in the areas they control.

Russia and Turkey’s agreement over Idlib could be good for overall political progress since each has influence over one side in the war.

The enmity of much of the population towards the Government has not diminished. It remains to be seen whether the Syrian Government’s plans to exclude oppositionist refugees and favour its supporters will significantly increase its threadbare legitimacy in the longer term.

Many commentators think that Western influence will be small in post-war Syria. Western intervention has been patchy and indecisinve, leaving Russia and Iran to shape the outcome of the conflict. The next stage will involve the vast cost of rebuilding a country in ruins, when neither the Syrian Government nor its backers in Iran and Russia have the money or the inclination to pay for it. Some commentators argue that, whether the West supplies or withholds reconstruction funds, it is unlikely to wring many political concessions from an emboldened Syrian Government.

 

 

 

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8416

Author: Ben Smith

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