Frozen Syria? Assessing the state of play and alternatives for engagement


On Sept. 14, the Place of work of the United International locations Prime Commissioner for Human Rights launched a observation caution that, “Syria can’t come up with the money for a go back to larger-scale combating, however this is the place it can be heading.” Syria’s frontlines had been frozen since March 2020, and whilst cross-line and rebel assaults proceed on a close to day by day foundation, the extent of violence is considerably diminished in comparison to earlier years. On the other hand, Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine has given upward thrust to hypothesis that it would draw down its forces in Syria, if now not totally withdraw, which might create an influence vacuum prompting the remainder anti-regime forces within the nation to escalate and ignite new fashionable combating. But those fears of escalation forget about the numerous adjustments to the stability of energy throughout Syria in recent times, overestimating the centrality of Russian energy and underestimating that of Turkish and American energy. Russia’s function in “freezing” the struggle as of late is minimum at best possible; moderately, it’s Turkey and america that experience ensured the relative steadiness within the northwest and northeast, respectively. Working out the present state of Syria and the evolving function of the 3 primary global actors finds distinctive coverage choices for each strengthening the present ceasefires and for enabling broader engagement to stabilize and fortify the hundreds of thousands of Syrians residing outdoor of regime keep watch over.

The only biggest contributor to the Syrian stalemate is the northwest ceasefire deal imposed by means of Turkey on Russia in March 2020, which iced over the remaining main frontline within the nation. Within the just about 3 years since, combating has been confined to 5 spaces: 1) Go-line assaults between Turkey and its Syrian allies and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria; 2) cross-line shelling and bombing alongside the Idlib frontline; 3) riot infighting in northwest Syria, in large part between the opposition factions sponsored by means of Turkey referred to as the Syrian Nationwide Military (SNA) however which lately noticed Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) involvement; 4) the insurgency in southern Syria between the regime, ex-rebels, and ISIS; and 5) the ISIS insurgency in opposition to regime forces in central Syria and the SDF within the northeast.

Defining escalation

On the subject of possible escalation there are a couple of key triggers. First, and in all probability, is the chance that Turkey conducts some other floor offensive in opposition to the U.S.-backed SDF, which it perspectives as a department of the designated terrorist crew the Kurdistan Staff’ Birthday party (PKK). Because the summer season of 2022, Turkey has signaled that it intends to release an offensive in opposition to the joint SDF-regime-Iranian-held areas of Tal Rifaat and Manbij, the previous of which has in recent times develop into a staging floor for assaults in opposition to Turkish forces whilst the later serves as crucial financial heart for the northeast. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has up to now additionally said his want to grasp SDF-held Kobani. Erdoğan’s choices, alternatively, and the destiny of the northeast don’t seem to be made up our minds by means of Russian redlines.

The second one possible cause is alongside the HTS-regime entrance in Idlib. This frontline stays frozen because of Turkish army deployments on one facet, and Russian restraint of Damascus at the different. However, each the rebels and the regime continuously trade hearth around the frontline, killing civilians in Idlib and militants on all sides each week. In the meantime, Russia continues its intermittent bombing marketing campaign of civilian houses. There stays the chance {that a} important regime or Russian assault will in the end cause a riot floor offensive, at which level combating might escalate past Turkey or Russia’s keep watch over.

The insurgencies in southern and central Syria lack the facility to shift the stability of energy in those spaces, even with the already minimum Russian involvement in countering them, and in southern Syria has in reality prompted a tightening of regime keep watch over over spaces that had been prior to now semi-autonomous. In a similar way, the ISIS insurgency within the northeast, whilst regularly eroding SDF keep watch over within the Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa geographical region, lacks the manpower and intensity to cause a complete governance cave in absent any important energy vacuum, such because the withdraw of coalition forces.

A Russian vacuum?

The central query to hand, then, is how the Russian invasion of Ukraine will have an effect on Syria. May a weakened Russia inspire new opposition or SDF escalations, because the armed teams search to extend their status? There are two competing sides at play right here: what Syria’s quite a lot of actors are in reality able to doing as opposed to what they understand themselves to be capable to doing.

Russia not serves as the army bulwark for Damascus it as soon as did, having withdrawn maximum of its battle forces from the rustic in 2018 and 2019. Because the regime recapture of southern Syria in spring 2018, the Russians have targeted their efforts on coaching, equipping, and rebuilding the Syrian Arab Military (SAA) in particular in order that Damascus would now not require direct Russian army intervention one day. This rebuilding effort has pursued more than one paths, however most significantly has resulted in the renovation of the SAA’s Particular Forces and a focal point on extra cellular, fast-reaction devices paired with mass artillery fortify. All over the remaining regime offensives in 2019 and early 2020, Russia’s direct involvement used to be in large part confined to offering air fortify; its efforts differently focused on supplying, making plans, and command and keep watch over of the quite a lot of regime devices. Within the just about 3 years since then, Russia has persevered to methodically equip and teach a spread of regime devices stationed round Idlib with laser-guided Krasnopol artillery, and Russian officials mechanically oversee SAA artillery coaching within the house. In the meantime, Damascus has, since 2018, launched into a concerted effort to rebuild its personal air pressure, which has slowly supplanted Russia’s function within the anti-ISIS air marketing campaign in central Syria.

All of those adjustments make the danger of collapsing regime traces in northwest Syria faraway. The Russians and Damascus have constructed a regime firewall round Idlib. It does now not topic that Russia has now not addressed the endemic corruption and obvious weaknesses of the SAA when Damascus is in the long run sponsored by means of a intensity in numbers no actor outdoor of the SDF can hope to compare. Whilst riot forces would for sure achieve shooting some territory in a hypothetical offensive, there may be little risk they’d dangle it. Likewise, any regime takeover of the northwest would lead to a large insurgency a long way better in scale than Damascus is lately enduring in south and central Syria. It’s the Turkish army that ended the regime’s talent to fly over Idlib, and it is just the Turkish army that may be certain rebels achieve and dangle floor one day.

The best possibility of escalation, due to this fact, comes from HTS or Damascus overestimating their hand. HTS might nonetheless suppose it is just the Russian air pressure that stands between them and new victories, whilst Damascus might underestimate Turkey’s get to the bottom of in fighting additional encroachments into Idlib. If one or the opposite had been to check this stalemate, it’s going to in large part fall on Turkey to forestall a spiral of escalation.

Turkey’s function

It’s Turkey’s posture this is most importantly impacted by means of the warfare in Ukraine. Ankara and Moscow had been locked in a mild stability of bluffs and blows because the Russian intervention in 2015. The 2020 Turkish offensive marked the primary critical shift in Ankara’s coverage towards Russia when it violently enforced the ceasefire the 2 nations had negotiated years prior however which Russia had frequently left out. The political and bodily prices of Turkey’s persevered enforcement of the northwest ceasefire don’t seem to be insignificant, leader amongst them the danger and useful resource drain put on Turkey’s military and the truth that Idlib is managed by means of HTS, a chosen terrorist crew. Nonetheless, the one biggest motivating issue for Turkish policymaking in northwest Syria is preventing refugee flows, a vital home factor for each the ruling and opposition political events. Ankara due to this fact can’t permit a regime offensive, which might push hundreds of thousands extra Syrians around the border, but additionally has little incentive to possibility Turkish infantrymen’ lives to lend a hand rebels in retaking land from the regime.

Likewise, home politics and perceived nationwide safety considerations, now not Russian energy, dictate Turkish army motion and inactiveness in opposition to the SDF. Turkey does now not desire a Russian greenlight to take Tel Rifaat, and Russian drive poses even much less of a disadvantage east of the Euphrates, the place Turkey mechanically goals the skinny line of regime forces stationed alongside its border with the SDF. Moderately, Turkish resolution making within the northeast is extra influenced by means of U.S. financial and political drive, and by means of SDF/PKK assaults inside of Syria and Turkey. What occurs in Ukraine, due to this fact, has little have an effect on at the possibility of escalation within the northeast. It’s the upcoming Turkish elections in mid-2023 and the danger of persevered U.S. distraction with Ukraine that create probably the most uncertainty about Erdogan’s choices on Syria.

Implications for international engagement

Regardless of the frozen frontlines, civilians in northwest Syria are nonetheless matter to weekly shelling from regime forces, displacing 1000’s each month. Whilst HTS has used the relative calm to crack down on and dismantle many of the transnational jihadist teams running there, the worsening humanitarian prerequisites go away a gap for ISIS and al-Qaeda cells to persist and rebuild. The similar dangers plague the northeast, the place the continual risk of Turkish invasion, fears over a U.S. withdrawal and regime go back, and safety and governance missteps by means of the Kurdish-led management have fostered a perfect atmosphere for ISIS to recruit, fundraise, and perform.

Either one of those areas be offering distinctive alternatives to support humanitarian prerequisites and deal with possible nationwide safety threats for policymakers keen to suppose creatively in regards to the struggle. Global support organizations will have to be allowed and inspired to extend their paintings past speedy life-saving support in Idlib, as a substitute making an investment within the varieties of stabilization paintings that can supply tutorial and employment alternatives for the area’s 3 million civilians. Western international locations themselves might in finding engaging returns for personal engagement with HTS on make a choice subjects, corresponding to pressuring the crowd to admire the rights of civil society and newshounds whilst keeping up its crackdown on transnational jihadists. In the meantime, the coalition presence in northeast Syria serves as the main bulwark in opposition to each the go back of ISIS and makes an attempt by means of Ankara and Damascus to grasp new territory from the SDF. American — now not Russian — political and financial drive on Ankara has to this point performed a big function in deterring a brand new offensive in Manbij or Kobani, whilst indifference to the Turkish drone marketing campaign has given Ankara the gap to degrade PKK management networks. But the U.S. and its allies will have to make investments extra sources and a spotlight within the social, political, and financial crises which can be undermining the counter-ISIS marketing campaign and using a wedge between Arabs and the Kurdish-led management.

Russia’s centrality as a key stabilizer of the Syrian regime has decreased and developed in recent times. Policymakers will have to acknowledge that Turkey and The us have develop into the guarantors of semi-stability within the areas outdoor of regime keep watch over, and simplest they’ve the ability to improve the resilience of present agreements. The us will have to proceed to drive Ankara in opposition to any floor offensive whilst concurrently running with it to make sure the northwest ceasefire is maintained all through and after the 2023 elections. Whilst those is also tricky insurance policies to pursue, ignoring the actual underlying reasons of as of late’s “frozen Syria” and their fragility all however promises long run escalations. Moderately than develop complacent over the overall quiet, Western nations will have to reconsider the breadth of choices they now have for inventive policymaking to additional stabilize the areas outdoor of regime keep watch over and support the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.


Gregory Waters is a Non-Resident Student on the Center East Institute, a expert for the Global Disaster Crew, and a analysis analyst on the Counter Extremism Challenge. His analysis specializes in the Syrian regime’s safety forces, basically using open-source analysis to evaluate the functions and construction of the Syrian Arab Military and allied militias. You’ll apply him on Twitter @GregoryPWaters.

Picture by means of BAKR ALKASEM/AFP by way of Getty Pictures

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