Small Wars Journal

Northwest Syria: No Room to ‘Reconcile’

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Northwest Syria: No Room to ‘Reconcile’

Nicholas A. Glavin

The Syrian regime’s application of “reconciliation agreements” in northwest Syria risks accelerating the humanitarian situation for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and destabilizing areas previously liberated from ISIS. There are no longer viable options for relocating individuals from Idlib Governorate given the presence of Turkish or U.S.-led Coalition elements in the other areas that remain outside of the regime’s control.

The Syrian regime’s “reconciliation” strategy towards armed opposition groups (AOGs) combines negotiations with the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force. Pro-regime forces siege the environs of opposition-held territory to create a complex emergency which limits access to humanitarian, food, and medical supplies. This strategy of siege, starve, and surrender compels the population to accept any agreement to resume the flow of necessary aid and has been replicated by AOGs throughout the conflict as well. Once an agreement is signed, AOGs hand over their materiel and amnesty is granted for rebels willing to accept living under regime rule. The transfer of civilian dissidents, opposition fighters, and their families to Idlib Governorate has nearly doubled the population to 2.5 million inhabitants since 2016.

Forced “reconciliation” is a relentless strategy to restore a monopoly of force, reintroduce social services, and set the conditions for the return of IDPs. The regime has pursued reconstruction and stabilization since 2012 to reassert its authority, regulate Syria’s economy, and change societal demographics. Anecdotal reports of regime-led stabilization includes rubble removal, checkpoints dismantled, electricity restoration, and incentives for higher education. The regime’s economic activities with armed groups generates resources to rebuild infrastructure ad improve basic services, with electricity production increasing significantly in Syria over the past year. Humanitarian access becomes restricted to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and international organizations registered with the regime, which degrades the capabilities of U.S.-sponsored programs to access these areas absent security guarantees from Moscow or Damascus.

Pro-regime forces are likely to launch an offensive on the final remaining opposition pockets in Idlib Governorate, judging from recent operations in the Southwest De-Escalation Zone (SWDEZ) and regime leaflets dropped near Idlib city. The anticipation of hostilities in Idlib is estimated to produce 250,000 to 700,000 IDPs attempting to flee the violence. Turkey likely will not allow spillover of IDPs and potential extremist elements across its border, judging from a weakening economy and popular discontent towards the presence of more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees already in-country. The population influx into other areas of northwest Syria has the potential to destabilize regions experiencing relative calm and present an opportunity for extremists to come into contact with Turkish or U.S. military, or non-state armed groups in the region. Moreover, the large number of IDPs likely provides freedom of movement and cover for ISIS and al-Qa`ida fighters to escape the regime offensive and establish clandestine cells elsewhere.

The conglomeration of IDPs, opposition fighters, and jihadists facilitated by the regime’s “reconciliation” deals has drastically compounded the Idlib problem set over the past several years to its current high-water mark. This has led Idlib to become the “largest al-Qa`ida safe haven since 9/11” housing some of its most seasoned veterans. The second- and third-order effects of massive displacement from Idlib places a premium on existing multinational efforts to share intelligence on the foreign terrorist fighter (FTF) threat. Only through a pragmatic approach can the U.S. mitigate the further destabilization of northwest Syria from an impending regime offensive. This entails a strong diplomatic effort to encourage Russia, Turkey, and Iran to uphold their commitments as guarantors of the Astana Agreement. Simultaneously, the U.S. must encourage Turkey and humanitarian organizations to preposition aid along the Turkish border in anticipation of the regime’s “mother of all battles”.

 

 

About the Author(s)

Nicholas A. Glavin is a MALD candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He previously worked at the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Naval War College’s Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups (CIWAG). The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent those of the U.S. Government. Follow him on Twitter @nickglavin.