The most destructive conflicts should not be the most forgotten ones: getting to the table in Syria

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

This week 40 foreign ministers, principally from the Western countries together with numerous senior officials, met in Rome. They are all members of the anti-ISIL coalition. This group is now seven years old and includes 77 countries and five international organisations. During the heyday of ISIL’s hold over its caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq, these coalition meetings were frequent occurrences, either at ministerial or senior official level. The group even met at NATO Headquarters, given the major roles in the coalition of many NATO allies and the alliance’s own contributions of AWACS aircraft or trainers in Iraq.

Yet, once the ISIL caliphate was defeated by the United States and its Kurdish and coalition allies in 2018, ISIL seemed to be a spent force. Its leader, Al-Baghdadi, was tracked down and killed in Iraq and ISIL fighters largely captured and interned in Kurdish-run camps along the Syria-Iraq border. The Trump administration declared ‘mission accomplished’ and the anti-ISIL coalition stopped meeting.

Yet, terrorist organisations are almost never defeated in a military sense – the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka being a rare exception. Instead, they change their business model and move to more opportune pastures. In the case of ISIL, this has meant moving their operations to Libya, Chad and West Africa, notably Mali and Burkina Faso, and more recently Nigeria and Mozambique.

The anti-ISIL coalition has somewhat belatedly woken up to this new jihadist threat, which France and the local African governments have been combating for some years already. So, in Rome, the coalition agreed to work more closely with the African states and the Italian foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, proposed the setting up of a task force to devise a common strategy to defeat the jihadists, who seem to have bolted themselves on to local militias by offering resources, weapons and organisational know-how. This new focus on West Africa was certainly a distraction from Afghanistan where, as the US and NATO troops complete their withdrawal, the Taliban are steadily advancing, capturing districts around Kabul, Kunduz and Kandahar, as well as the border crossing to Tajikistan.

The conflict has destroyed about 40% of Syria’s infrastructure

Yet between Afghanistan and West Africa another conflict has been raging for the last decade, which has proved even more destructive and destabilising for the broader region than the other two. It is the civil war in Syria, which began in March 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring protest movements which swept across North Africa and the Middle East. The uprising against the Assad regime, undoubtedly fuelled by the regime’s immediate and brutal overreaction to student protests in regional cities like Homs and Daraa, has led to the deaths of over half a million Syrians and the displacement of 14mn civilians either inside the country or abroad. This is half of the entire population.

Many have fled to neighbouring countries. Today, Turkey is playing host to 3.8mn Syrians, 20% of the population of Lebanon is now made up of Syrians, and the fourth largest ‘city’ in Jordan is a refugee camp. This has put an intolerable strain on the economies of these countries, and refugee and migrant flows between Turkey and Europe have exacerbated relations between Turkey, Greece and the rest of the EU. The conflict has destroyed about 40% of Syria’s infrastructure and blighted the physical and mental health and educational prospects of an entire generation of young Syrians. The Assad regime has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against its own people, destroyed hospitals and practiced torture on a vast scale. We know about this from the photographic evidence that intrepid NGOs like the Syrian Observatory and other groups have managed to smuggle out of the country.

Syria has become one of the most complicated conflicts in modern history with multiple Islamist groups fighting the Assad regime, Turkey fighting Kurdish groups supported by the US, the US fighting Iraqi pro-Iranian groups operating on the Syrian border, where the US carried out the second air strike ordered by the Biden administration just this past week. All in addition to Israel fighting Iranian-backed groups in the south of the country, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian Popular Mobilization Forces supporting Assad, and Russia, Turkey and the US all keeping forces inside Syria. With its sizeable and increasingly permanent air and naval presence at Latakia, Russia has become the de facto arbiter of the Syrian imbroglio. Meanwhile ISIL, defeated but still defiant, is taking advantage of the overall chaos to reconstitute. It has begun to carry out small scale attacks, and although many of its foreign fighters decamped to Africa or Afghanistan, the ISIL core leadership has remained behind in Syria under its new head of operations, Al-Qurashi.

Given all these foreign interventions and cross-cutting internal conflicts, Syria is the global conflict with the greatest potential to plunge the Middle East into turmoil, destabilise neighbouring Iraq, prolong the animosity between Russia, Iran, the US and the West, and alienate Turkey from its Western allies. It still holds the potential too to cause further major humanitarian disasters.

The longer these camps endure, the greater the prospect that they will serve as recruitment centres for the next generation of ISIL jihadists

Therefore, it was unsurprising that following the meeting of the anti-ISIL coalition in Rome on Monday, the foreign ministers also held a meeting of the international Syria coalition. US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, pointed out that ISIL still has 10,000 fighters interned in camps in Syria, the largest and most notorious being Al-Hol. The longer these camps endure, the greater the prospect that they will serve as recruitment centres for the next generation of ISIL jihadists. Also, many fighters have escaped after the Kurdish forces running the camps redeployed to the north last year to confront the Turks, who had crossed the border into northern Syria to push the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces out of their pockets in Manbij and Afrin. The danger here is that the allies will allow ISIL to re-emerge in Syria and Iraq because they are too busy fighting other adversaries: the Turks and the YPG, while the US and Israel strike the pro-Iranian groups, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

In Rome, Blinken pledged a US contribution of $436mn to help the displaced Syrians. He also pushed the allies hard to repatriate their nationals currently interned in Syria and put them on trial back in their home countries. He praised Italy and Kazakhstan for doing precisely this, and the latter in particular for its de-radicalisation programmes. But the countries with the bulk of the foreign fighters, such as the UK, France, Belgium and Germany, have refused to do this, stripping some of the fighters and their spouses of their nationality instead.

Yet, at the very moment when the Rome meeting was refocusing attention on the dangers of a Syrian conflict left to fester, another meeting – this time of the UN Security Council in New York – was adopting a more hopeful note on the diplomatic front. The Security Council was addressed by the special envoy for Syria of the UN Secretary-General, Geir Pedersen. He appealed to the major powers to restart the political process for a peace settlement in Syria, starting with an exchange of prisoners and a nationwide ceasefire.

Pedersen described Syria as “a ticking time bomb for regional stability”

Pedersen pointed to the fact that over the past 15 months, the conflict in Syria has largely subsided with the remaining anti-Assad forces holed up inside the Idlib pocket protected by Turkey. Yet, he was also concerned that this lull is fragile. Pedersen described Syria as “a ticking time bomb for regional stability”. Indeed, over the past few weeks, Assad’s forces have resumed their attacks on the southern parts of Idlib and bombarded the Al-Shifaa Hospital in Afrin. Israel has also resumed its air strikes in the south. Pedersen further emphasised the dire state of the Syrian economy. The World Bank has calculated that reconstruction in Syria will cost at least $250bn and Russia has appealed for Western investments. Yet, absent a political settlement, these investments will certainly not materialise any time soon. Given the Syrian quagmire, and taking advantage of Russia and Turkey’s more cooperative stance on Libya recently with the withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries, plus support for the new transitional government, the UN envoy believes that the time has come for a new Syria initiative. Pedersen is taking his plan in days ahead to Moscow, Tehran and Ankara. These are countries in the Astana process, which has tried to bring Assad together with select members of the opposition to restart the political dialogue.

These dialogues have been tried before. Since 2011, Syria conferences have been held in Paris, Istanbul, Rome, Geneva and Vienna, as well as Astana. We started with the Friends of Syria Group, London 11 group, and since 2016, the International Syria Support Group, but none have persuaded Assad, who believes he has won the civil war, to move towards a new constitution and agree to free and fair, internationally supervised elections, let alone to agree to a real role for the opposition or to give more autonomy to the regions, in particular the Kurdish enclaves. So, will a fresh initiative work where others have failed?

Certainly not if the international community cannot agree to some initial steps, particularly in the humanitarian area. In New York, Norway and Ireland have circulated a draft UNSC Resolution calling for the re-opening of two humanitarian corridors from Turkey into northern Syria, which were closed last year under the threat of a Russian veto in the Security Council, leaving only one still open: Bab al-Hawa. This has been blocked on occasion for political reasons, threatening the survival of 1.4mn Syrian civilians inside Idlib, who depend on international aid coming over the Turkish border for food, medicine and educational supplies. The UN mandate for Bab al-Hawa expires on 10 July so we urgently need a way ahead.

This is a recipe for the Assad regime to use aid as a tool of blackmail or political manipulation

Russia has sided with the Assad regime in arguing that the humanitarian aid should transit across conflict lines rather than across borders, leaving the government in Damascus in charge of distribution. This is a recipe for the Assad regime to use aid as a tool of blackmail or political manipulation. The US and its European partners have called for two previous crossings to be re-opened: Bab al-Salam, which would help feed 800,000 people in Aleppo, and al-Yarobiya. At least two out of three have to be the test of Russia’s willingness to work constructively with the US, EU and Turkey to ease the situation inside Syria.

If the UNSC Resolution passes, the next step would be to re-convene the national political dialogue under UN auspices, as happened successfully in Libya last autumn. The UN Security Council passed a resolution back in 2015, stating that it would only recognise the result of Syrian elections that were free and fair, allowed for diverse candidates and permitted Syrians abroad to vote. These elections, moreover, should be held only after a new constitution has been adopted by the national dialogue. Last May, Assad went ahead with his own fraudulent re-election in defiance of the UN Resolution; thus, it is important that the international community denies him the legitimacy that he would hope to achieve from this election.

Syria has proven to be such an intractable conflict that diplomats, as well as informed observers, will undoubtedly be sceptical that any good can be achieved from giving the peace process another try. Yet, the prospect of another round of fighting, more outside intervention, a collapsing economy and the return of ISIL are all reason enough to give Geir Pedersen our support in his shuttle diplomacy. Banking on a fragile ceasefire to last much longer would be as futile as it is foolish.

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