Syria sliding into total disorder
The last few months of 2017 seemed to enhance the prospects of a coming peace in Syria. Turkey, Russia and Iran announced a three-way agreement to establish de-escalation zones in four different zones inside Syria, with calls for a national dialogue congress to be convened to discuss a peaceful settlement to the civil war.
“Mission nearly accomplished” was the main message Russian President Vladimir Putin conveyed to all relevant parties with reference to the fight against terrorism across the country. There is no place for military operations was the follow up message he gave in his meetings with Turkish and Iranian leaders at a summit in Sochi.
The three guarantor countries had agreed to launch the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which took place in late January 2018 and yielded the foundation of a 50-member committee tasked to write the new Syrian constitution.
However, the first two months of 2018 have seen a rise of violence in the country, especially because of the Syrian regime’s unending military operations in the Idlib province of Syria, even though the said area was designated as a de-escalation zone. This was followed by intensified operations against opposition groups in eastern Ghouta that sparked a vast international reaction because of the scores of civilian casualties.
The Turkish army also launched an operation in Afrin to counter the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group that poses a great danger to Turkish citizens on the other side of the border.
Meanwhile, a Russian aircraft was downed and the Russian Hmeymim base was hit by jihadist groups. Russian troops launched an operation against these groups especially in and around Idlib province. The picture further complicated after an Israeli aircraft was downed by a Syrian missile in early February.
The fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is still ongoing in eastern Syria, conducted mainly by the U.S. and YPG troops, but there are questions marks about the intensity and effectiveness of the struggle.
At this point it is hard to find evidence to support Putin’s optimism. On the contrary, the country appears to be in total disorder.
The Syrian leadership is trying to take advantage of this process by further weakening opposition groups in different parts of the country under the pretext of fighting against jihadist groups. One should not be naïve to think this is a one-way aggression. Syrian opposition groups as well as a dozen jihadist terror groups under different names have also been attacking both Syrian army and Russian targets.
It is uncertain how the U.N. Security Council’s latest resolution, which calls for a 30-day ceasefire in designated areas, will have an impact on the situation on the ground. Hopes for real change are slim.
Turkey launched its “Operation Olive Branch” against the YPG on Jan. 20, and this operation could last months. The question these days is how the Turkish army will deal with Afrin city, where the YPG has been preparing for urban warfare.
The U.S. has been extremely unhappy of the Turkish incursion on the grounds that it undermines the ongoing anti-ISIL fight. Some YPG groups have already left their positions in eastern Euphrates to join their fellows in Afrin.
Moreover, Turkey is also threatening its NATO ally, stating that its next target will be Manbij, if the YPG troops controlling this city do not withdraw to the east of the River Euphrates. In March, Turkish-U.S. teams are scheduled to discuss all issues concerning Syria in a bid to diffuse bilateral tensions.
On the same days, the foreign ministers of the three guarantor countries are set to meet in Astana to revise joint efforts to de-escalate tensions and prepare the necessary conditions for a political normalization process.
Iran, on the other hand, continues to support militant groups loyal to Tehran inside Syria and back Assad’s leadership.
Today’s outlook on Syria suggest the country is in total disorder with no hopes of securing long-term peace anytime soon, contrary to Putin’s optimism in late 2017.