Syrian Conflict Dynamics July 2017

Author: Common Space Initiative,


The past few months have seen international and regional actors stepping up their game in Syria. The unprecedented agreement that was reached in Astana between Moscow, Ankara and Tehran on 4 May allowed idealists and critics alike to envisage an incremental stabilization plan that could enable the beginning of the end of violent conflict. The agreement, adopted in the absence of Syrian signatories, demonstrates the growing control over the fate of the country exerted by external powers, whose interests are still conflicting. It nonetheless shows some signs of re-alignment in containing the post-ISIS territories.

Advances on Raqqa and Mosul have already succeeded in forcing ISIS out of Mosul, and the conquest of Raqqa by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seems imminent. However, behind the scenes of international collaboration against ISIS a new conflict is brewing over how to contain the post-ISIS fighters and consolidate their territory. In the southeastern part of the country, Russian and Iranian allied forces on the one hand, and US allied ground forces on the other, have been nominally engaged in fighting ISIS, while clashing with each other. Jordan, backed by Western allies, has been looking to extend eastwards in a bid to push IS further away from its borders beyond the southern areas of Sweida, Daraa and Quneitra. In parallel, Russian and Iranian allied forces have declared their intention to secure the route from Damascus to Baghdad, and tighten their grip on the Syrian-Iraqi borders. Tensions have been mounting for the most part between Iran and the US, reflecting an increasingly tenuous situation at the regional level that has seen the US harden its stance against Iran. Iran also deployed missile fire against ISIS for the first time inside Syria, sending indirect warning signals to the remaining players that the regional gamble could easily escalate. New international confrontations are likely to erupt as actors accelerate the race to the Deir ez-Zor governorate, where ISIS militants are retreating in increasing numbers. Securing an east-west axis through Deir ez-Zor is a strategic Iranian post-ISIS goal that the US seems bent on preventing for the time being.  Also further to the south, fighting has posed new risks in the Quneitra region, where the status quo has largely been maintained to prevent any meltdown of the decades-long frozen front between Syria and Israel. Towards the end of June, clashes erupted between the central government and armed opposition groups in the northern Quneitra governorate. Missiles also hit the Israeli-occupied areas of the Golan Heights, triggering retaliation from Israel. The resulting tensions reached levels critical enough to warrant a whole new focus on de-escalation.

Notwithstanding, efforts to de-escalate the conflict have manifested through different projects reflecting the interests of the main international protagonists in Syria. The Astana process with its de-escalation zones have become the most visible process, but the four areas defined in Astana are not the only game in town. The US and Russia have negotiated over the demarcation of de-conflicting zones to ensure that their assets on the ground do not overlap each other’s sphere of influence. The de-conflicting zones were put to the test several times during the last phase but seem to be holding for the time being. Furthermore, there is a safe zone established in the north by Turkey which was not incorporated into the de-escalation zones. The idea of safe zones is also promoted by Lebanese politicians as a possible exit strategy for the refugee problem in Lebanon, and the most recent maneuvers in Lebanon suggest a strong appetite for such a concept to evolve on the Lebanese-Syrian border. The euphemistic stabilization zones are still on the table, a concept that emerged from the London conference in February 2016.  Although this has never been specifically stipulated in political documents, a substantial amount of US and European funding for Syria is geared towards sustaining opposition structures in the interim period until a political solution has been reached. Aid has created a certain territoriality of its own. Likewise, there is the de-facto sphere of influence set up by the US in the northeast by installing at least ten military bases in the Democratic Autonomous Areas to ensure containment post-ISIS. This latter sphere of influence is likely to be leveraged over the long run to counterbalance the presence of the Russians in government-controlled areas and the Turks in the north and northwest.

As for the de-escalation agreement that was brokered in Astana, the deal initially led to an immediate decrease in violence on the ground and a return to relative stability in several of the affected areas. At the same time, actors on the ground have expressed consternation about the implications of the deal, their most vociferous concerns stemming from fears that it will give foreign actors a free hand to carve up the territory. Moreover, the agreement that was to cover four key opposition-held pockets and to assure a certain level of stability for the opposition to engage in the political process, was soon reduced to smaller chunks. The much-anticipated detailed plans for the de-escalation zones were to be tackled in a piecemeal manner. The Russians began to broker a separate deal for each zone beginning with the south. Each deal involved a separate agreement with one or more of the international backers of the opposition that held the most sway in that zone. The Amman agreement allowed the process to be launched in Daraa in collaboration with Jordan and the US. East Ghouta is being concocted at the time of writing this update through a deal involving Egypt as a proxy for Saudi Arabia to sideline Jaish al-Islam, the biggest armed actor in the area. The initial Astana agreement envisioned the deployment of armed contingencies from the three guarantors, namely Turkey, Russia and Iran. However, it soon became clear that arrangements that would suit one side were unconvincing in another area.  The process then shifted to create separate guarantees for each area. This further reduced the collective bargaining by the opposition over the fate of the de-escalation zones and ushered in the idea in no uncertain terms that Syrians (mainly in the opposition but also in the loyalist camp) will not be allowed to leverage their military assets in any future political negotiation. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura was hard pressed to assure everyone that the Astana process would reinforce the Geneva talks, despite the fact that the two processes seemed at odds at times. However, as the Astana process has moved beyond de-escalation to reduce the ability of armed actors to impose their will on the political  process, the UN Special Envoy may have some cause for optimism that a breakthrough among international stakeholders is imminent, possibly timed to coincide with the next General Assembly meeting in New York in September.

However, the process that has achieved some degree of success in the south is still facing major difficulties in the north, where the Nusra Front-dominated Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) holds major sway. The classification of the group as a terrorist organization by the UN has delayed the possibility of reaching final agreements on the de-escalation zones of Idlib and northern Homs.  Initial attempts to reduce violence on the ground have produced visible results, although secondary layers of conflict have surfaced as ultimate control over these areas is still contested internally among the armed actors and their different backers. Idlib province has witnessed the arrival of thousands of Syrians displaced from other areas. This makes Idlib a hub for armed groups with different radicalized pedigrees. Minor crime-related incidents have given the HTS popular mandate to enforce law and order and stretch their power by coercing some of the minor armed actors to join them. At the same time, in the town of Maarat al-Numan in the south of Idlib city, several local disputes resulted in deadly clashes between HTS and Free Syrian Army brigades (FSA). The clashes brought civilians to the streets in protest against the infighting between the rebel factions, which saw HTS withdraw from the area. HTS and Ahrar al-Sham (Ahrar) have also been the targets of explosions recently, responsibility for which has not been claimed by anyone, but which appear to indicate the heightening of tensions between the groups. This has culminated in more direct clashes between HTS and Ahrar, which at the time of writing is tilting the balance of power in favour of HTS. The fire sale by radical groups in Idlib province is bound to necessitate the direct intervention of either Turkey or Russia to calm the situation.

Turkey and Russia have had strained relations in Syria that reflect the wavering position Turkey is trying to carve out for itself between east and west. The progressive trust-building measures in Syria culminated in 2016 in the handing over of eastern Aleppo to the Syrian central government in return for allowing Turkey to set up a safe zone in the northern part of Aleppo province. However, attempts by Turkey to move further into the Syrian north have been blocked by Russia, which took measures to place Russian assets in the Kurdish cantonment of Afrin. This move may have been aimed at dissuading the Turks from moving into Kurdish areas, but at the same time it will have given assurances to the Turks that Kurdish areas will not be allowed to join each other and create a continuum along the Syrian-Turkish border. The Russian entry into Afrin would place some Kurdish areas under Russian patronage while others would remain under American control, and the two will not be allowed to converge. This situation is still unsatisfactory for Turkey as it is afraid that the Kurdish-dominated SDF is gaining too much power by being touted as the main armed actor in the fight against ISIS. The failure of the recent de-escalation talks in Astana to tackle the Idlib and northern Homs region, and shifting the deal from a collective de-escalation process to one of negotiating each zone individually may open new doors for Russian-Turkish negotiations over the fate of Idlib. Indeed, some signs of a deal seem to be emerging, although the picture is unclear as yet. The Russians have removed their assets from Afrin, while the Turks are reducing their support for Ahrar al-Sham. Idlib is increasingly becoming the sole domain of HTS. This will provide a pretext for dealing with the province as a hub for terrorism and building consensus among international actors to tackle Idlib in a similar manner to Raqqa.

While the Afrin-Idlib front is still highly contested and its future unclear, the Euphrates Shield safe zone established by Turkey further north is witnessing relative calm. The deal with Russia that allowed Turkey to enter northern Syria apparently entailed stipulations that governance in this zone will be handled directly by Turkey, not by the Syrian Interim Government nor any of its subsidiary institutions. In the northern cities of Azaz, Jarablus and al-Bab, Turkey has been making some efforts to provide basic services through the agency of Turkish administrations based in Gaziantep and Kilis. Local governance structures are closely monitored by Turkey. This has facilitated some return to normality and is contributing to the accelerated return of refugees from Turkey to Syria. While these efforts are welcomed by civilians on the ground, they are gradually contributing to a state of dependency on Turkish interventions that is likely to have long-term consequences for the reunification of Syria. Turkish-backed armed actors who control the local scene in the Euphrates Shield area are causing concerns among local communities. Their interference in local governance and the constant challenge they pose to other opposition armed actors is heightening tensions, as transpired in the city of al-Bab recently. While a mediated settlement has been reached, the situation remains fragile there. The emerging scene in most of the de-escalation/safe zones is proving that external actors’ interference is no guarantee of local stability.

The power struggle among local actors is still a major driver of secondary violence. Sustaining local peace over the long term is highly dependent on internal community stability. So far, resources for stabilization to complement the ongoing international top-down efforts are still lacking as stabilization donors are wary of injecting funds into these areas for fear of legitimizing de-facto governance bodies. Humanitarian aid remains much easier for donors to justify despite its redundancy in many areas at a time when needs are shifting towards longer-term stabilization. The EU dictum of no reconstruction without transition is running into trouble as the situation on the ground clearly calls for a shift in funding instruments. The original EU dictum was mainly designed to declare that a military victory by Damascus and its allies would not create automatic acceptance by the Europeans of the facts on the ground. There is a dire need for essential funds for stability in government-controlled areas. Despite the government takeover in Aleppo and other besieged cities, the central government’s efforts have amounted to little more than window dressing in demolished neighborhoods.

In government-held Aleppo, the lack of services and the rising number of thefts, kidnappings and other crime-related incidents recently has sparked public outrage, with public demands for mobilization and action. In response, the government has begun to act to remove checkpoints, hunt down loyalist gangs, publicly condemn breaches of law, rehabilitate basic services, and clear the rubble in damaged areas. Several government-held towns have also begun to see the return of displaced Syrians. Amongst others, the town of Qudsaia to the west of Damascus saw IDPs return after a “reconciliation deal” was brokered in late 2016. Their return, however, has not been devoid of challenges. Among the impediments to their return has been reclaiming housing and property. Returning families have, for instance, reported that their homes have been occupied by secondary families. Other families have been unable to reclaim their property in the absence of documented proof of ownership. Some families have not been able to settle into their homes in the face of the staggering costs of renovation and reconstruction. Other “reconciliation deals” that have been struck across the country have not dealt with the underlying lack of trust between the parties to the conflict, which continues to prompt concerns among civilians that the hostilities could easily re-erupt. The return of refugees and IDPs will pose major challenges. These challenges are likewise bound to prevail in the absence of a political deal that would ease the concerns of international donors and allow them to cater to the needs of these newly accessible areas. Ultimately, the goal of repatriating refugees will be used as leverage for a political deal in Syria, or at least this is a hope nurtured by Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura when it comes to advancing the political process.



Author: Common Space Initiative

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