SEATTLE, Washington — Syria’s civil war is an expression of complicated and varied geopolitical interests held by the United States, Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government and the numerous rebel-led militias that seek to overthrow the Assad regime. Recent diplomatic efforts between Moscow and Ankara led to a ceasefire between Russian and Turkish troops as of March 6. The two governments also agreed on the creation of a non-militarized zone in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. Expansion of diplomatic efforts to include all parties with interests in the Syrian conflict is the only way to ensure that this Russian and Turkish ceasefire will forge a path toward lasting peace rather than only a momentary halt in bloodshed.
Unpacking the Syrian Civil War
Ravaged by the perils of war, Syrians have seen their cityscapes reduced to rubble-strewn battlefields, between 400,000 and 470,000 of their countrymen killed and more than half of their population displaced since the conflict began in 2011. In 2010, Syria’s GDP was approximately $60 billion dollars. The U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia estimates that the civil war has created $388 billion in lost physical capital since it began. These estimates don’t factor in the loss of life and labor competencies dissipated through displacement.
Beginning with an uprising in the southwestern Syrian city of Daraa in 2011, the conflict quickly escalated into an all-out civil war. Syria’s tumult was escalated by the CIA’s covert arming of Syrian militants in 2012. These militants became increasingly susceptible to growing jihadist elements as foreign fighters from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan flooded their ranks. CIA backed coalitions were split into more than 1,200 groups, each representing varying regional viewpoints and political perspectives. This fractured landscape fostered the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as the primary oppositional force to the Syrian government.
By 2014, ISIS had seized more than a third of Syrian territory and claimed the city of Raqqa as the capital of its new caliphate. Syria responded by strengthening partnerships with Russian and Iranian military forces, allowing them to successfully push into rebel territories and regain control. In 2016, the Assad regime reclaimed Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. Government forces continued their campaign by recapturing strategic hubs along Syria’s western border. In 2018, Assad’s forces secured the suburbs surrounding the capital of Damascus for the first time since 2013. By the summer of 2018, the Syrian government reclaimed Daraa where the initial protests against Assad had taken place. This left only the northwest province of Idlib under ISIS control.
Fighting in the Idlib Province
Although the scope of the Syrian conflict has narrowed significantly, fighting within Idlib province, the last bastion of ISIS territory in Syria, is still a complex geopolitical hotspot with severe humanitarian consequences. In fact, the largest instance of displacement since the conflict began occurred within the last year. Around “961,000 Syrian civilians, primarily women and children,” have been displaced due to fighting within Idlib province since December 1, 2019. Huras-al-Din, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) both remain powerbrokers in Idlib. In fact, 12,000 – 15,000 HTS militants and 3,500 – 5,000 fighters for the Huras-al-Din still actively control cities and towns within the region.
Turkey and Russia play crucial roles in the remaining conflict. Russia and Iran are the primary military partners of the Syrian government. The Kremlin has provided crucial air support to the regime’s ground deployments while Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor and NATO member, supports the remaining militants operating out of Idlib with a combination of air support ground troops.
Will the Recent Russian and Turkish Ceasefire Succeed?
Terms of the March 6 ceasefire negotiated between Moscow and Ankara put a halt to the fighting between the two nations after conflict killed 60 Turkish soldiers in the past months. Negotiations also created a buffer zone that joint Russian and Turkish forces will patrol on either side of Idlib’s M4 highway – a crucial point of interest to both the Russian backed Assad regime and its Turkish neighbors.
So far, the fragile peace between the two forces has held since the agreement was reached earlier this month. Regardless, many still fear that the March 6 ceasefire, which lays out similar terms to the failed 2018 Sochi agreements, will also fail to orchestrate a lasting peace in Idlib. Unlike the Sochi agreements, however, this most recent diplomatic effort has been successful in creating joint Russian and Turkish patrols in Idlib province, which began operations on March 15, 2020.
The Road Ahead
Although this is a promising sign that these recent accords may produce different results than the Sochi agreements did, American foreign policy has not changed in its approach to Syria. Russia sought security council backing from the U.N. for its recent peace accords; however, the United States vetoed the joint resolution. Representatives from the American coalition to the U.N., as well as representatives and their NATO allies in Germany, France and the U.K., cited insufficient confidence that the Russian and Turkish ceasefire could create stability in Idlib or bring an end to the refugee crisis.
For this new Russian and Turkish ceasefire to restore peace in Idlib and bring an end to the Syrian civil war, both Russian and Turkish forces will need to demonstrate to the international community that they can maintain the terms of the agreement. Further diplomacy is also needed between all parties with stakes in the Syrian conflict to tend to the needs of displaced persons and reclaim territories ISIS forces still hold within Idlib province.
– Perry Stone Budd