Shockwaves from Ukraine ripple through war-weary Syria

Russia-Ukraine-Syria links

  • The Russian attack on Ukraine last month diverted the international community’s already waning attention from Syria’s now 11-year civil war.

  • UN Secretary General Antonio Guterresaddressing the Security Council on March 23, said the Syrians feel “abandoned by the world“after a decade of war.

  • Russia is the main backer of the Syrian government. Moscow’s military intervention in support of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad secured Assad’s grip on power in a fragile and divided country.

  • Israel coordinates its Syrian policy, including intermittent attacks against Iran and Iranian-backed armed groups, with Russia.

  • Russia, now fully engaged in the war in Ukraine, could provide an opening for Turkey, and perhaps others, to advance their agendas in Syria.

UN: the destruction of Syria “has few equals” in modern history

  • On March 11, António Guterres reminded the Security Council that “the destruction endured by the Syrians is so extensive and deadly that it has few equivalents in modern history. … There must be no impunity”.

  • “Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, more than half of the pre-war population – around 22 million – was displaced,” he added. mentioned Paulo PinheiroChairman of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab RepublicMarch 9. “More than 100,000 people are missing or forcibly disappeared. Syrian cities and infrastructure have been destroyed. Today, the poverty rate in Syria is at an unprecedented 90%; 14.6 million people in Syria depend on humanitarian aid.”

  • “Nearly 5 million children have been born in Syria since 2011,” said UNICEF Representative in Syria, Bo Victor Nylund said in March. “They have known only war and conflict. In many parts of Syria, they continue to live in fear of violence, landmines and explosive remnants of war.

Syria ranks among the 10 most food insecure countries in the worldwith “a staggering 12 million people considered food insecure,” the deputy humanitarian coordinator said. Joyce Msuya reported to the Council, while noting that the country’s economy “continues its downward spiral”.

UN envoy: parties ‘substantially removed’ from flagging political process

  • The only way out of this impasse, António Guterres said, is through a credible political process that forges lasting peace and gives all Syrians a voice.

  • But the political process described in United Nations Security 2254 (2015) has been so delayed and hindered that it seems out of time and out of place with Syria today. And that was before the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, one of the key players in the Syrian drama.

  • UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen told the Security Council in February that he is “very concerned that the constructive international diplomacy necessary to move this forward may prove more difficult than it already was, in the context of military operations in Ukraine”.

  • The political negotiations are mostly dominated by Moscow, and by extension Damascus, with no countervailing US or Western engagement to give Pedersen the leverage needed to advance his “step-by-step” approach to negotiations.

  • “The positions of the parties are substantially far apart, and narrowing their differences will inevitably be a gradual process,” Pedersen told the Security Council.

Turkey: “A new start” in Syria?

  • For at least one actor in Syria – Turkey – the war in Ukraine may represent an opportunity. Russia’s distraction in Ukraine could be a chance for the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to remedy its Syrian quagmire, which has weighed on Turkey’s faltering economy, aggravated by the war in Ukraine (see the report by Mustafa Sonmez here).

  • Turkey currently occupies, through its Syrian military and proxy forces, approximately 3,400 square miles in northern Syria. Turkey also hosts nearly 3.5 million Syrian refugees.

  • Erdogan has offered dialogue with Assad, while stepping up actions in Syria to intimidate Kurdish-controlled areas and strengthen Turkish bases, such as Fehim Tastekin reports.

  • Turkey views Kurdish parties aligned with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as terrorists, linked to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

  • Meanwhile, Turkey has sought to facilitate coordination by the former Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS, and “Liberation of the Levant”) linked to al-Qaeda, which controls most of the northwestern province of Idlib, with Turkish-backed Syrian factions, such as Khaled Al-Khateb reports from Aleppo, as HTS seeks to eliminate or absorb more radical rival groups.

  • Moscow may have told Damascus to suspend any major offensive against Idlib, diplomatic sources say, although there has been a steady stream of Syrian government attacks in the province, Khateb adds.

  • Also taking the initiative in Syria, the leader of HTS Abu Mohamed al-Golaniwho made the rounds to widen his popular support, as Sultan Al Kanj reports from Aleppo.

  • Meanwhile, Turkey has tightened its ties with the United States, establishing a new “strategic mechanism” to facilitate coordination on trade, human rights and security, including Ukraine and Syria, as Nazlan Ertan reports.

  • And Erdogan’s global diplomatic credibility has been boosted in the West by his efforts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, writes Semih Idiz.

United States: “Pushing to Account”?

  • Under the Caesar Law of 2019 on civil protection in Syria“It is the policy of the United States that diplomatic and coercive economic means should be used to compel the government to Bashar al-Assad to end its deadly attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights and peaceful coexistence with its neighbours.”

  • The Biden Administration’s Review of Syria Policy, completed in December 2021, prioritizes the US-led campaign against ISIS; supporting local ceasefires and humanitarian access throughout Syria (which requires coordination with Russia); “to push for accountability and respect for international law while promoting human rights and non-proliferation, including through the imposition of targeted sanctions; and to support a political process led by the Syrian people, as envisioned in “UNSCR 2254.

  • As a result of the Biden review, the Trump administration’s goal of calling for the withdrawal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and IRGC-backed forces in Syria has been abandoned or downgraded.

  • Four US soldiers received medical treatment for ‘minor injuries’ and possible brain trauma following a rocket attack on a US-led coalition base in eastern Syria, likely attributed to paramilitary groups backed by Iran, the first such attack since January, reports Jared Szuba. The United States has approximately 900 troops in Syria as part of its Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led “D-ISIS” mission in Syria and Iraq.

  • The Biden administration continues to reject moves by Arab states to normalize relations with Assad, who paid an official visit to the United Arab Emirates in March. But these efforts are nonetheless gaining ground, albeit slowly, as Georges Mikhail Cairo reports.

  • the chairmen and senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees wrote a letter to the US President Joe Biden in January, calling for “consequences for any nation that seeks to rehabilitate the Assad regime and ensure that all countries understand that normalization or Assad’s return to the Arab League is unacceptable.”

  • Mostly absent from UN diplomacy on Syria, the US has instead focused on keeping the remaining UN humanitarian corridor open at the Bab Al Hawa crossing point. UNSC Res 2585 (2021) expires in July and Russia could veto it. Diplomatic sources, however, indicate that most aid passing through the crossing is in any case facilitated by one of the land-based NGOs, and that Turkey controls a number of alternative border crossings into Syria.

  • Elisabeth Hagedornon this week’s On the Middle East podcast suggests that the focus on alleged Russian atrocities in the war in Ukraine could trigger similar calls for accountability for war crimes in Syria.

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