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 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 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 to reassert its authority, regulate Syria’s economy, and change societal demographics. Anecdotal reports of regime-led stabilization includes rubble removal, , , and . The regime’s economic activities with armed groups generates resources to rebuild infrastructure ad improve basic services, with electricity production 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 dropped near Idlib city. The anticipation of hostilities in Idlib is estimated to produce attempting to flee the violence. Turkey likely will not allow spillover of IDPs and potential extremist elements across its border, judging from a and popular discontent towards the presence of 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 housing some of its . The second- and third-order effects of massive displacement from Idlib places a premium on 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 . Simultaneously, the U.S. must encourage Turkey and humanitarian organizations to preposition aid along the Turkish border in anticipation of the regime’s .