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Is the Syrian Status Quo Unraveling?
I hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving. If you aren’t sick of Turkey yet, this post has another serving or two.
Truth in punditry—I have been warning for some time that the situation in eastern Syria is fragile and could collapse at any moment. So far, it hasn’t.
But recent events in the region are concerning. Maybe they are just more blips, but maybe they are signs that parties on the ground are serious about changing the equation.
Specifically, Turkey—which has occupied parts of northeastern Syria since October 2019—has conducted strikes on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that are the counter-ISIS force guarding detention facilities and displaced persons/refugee camps. Turkey claims the strikes are retribution for the November 13 bombing in Istanbul that the government blamed on Kurdish separatists.
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One of the uncomfortable truths of the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria is that some of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are affiliated in some shape or form with the PKK—the Kurdish separatist and designated terrorist group that has been waging a campaign of violence against Turkey for decades.
Turkey has stated that the airstrikes are a prelude to another ground campaign against the Kurds in Syria.
Now, SDF leadership is warning that it will have to respond to a Turkish offensive by circling the wagons and pulling its forces from security duty at prisons and camps. That of course could lead to the escape of thousands of ISIS fighters and supporters.
This would not be the first time something like this has happened. During the counter-ISIS campaign, Turkey has launched multiple operations into Syria to go after Kurdish fighters. In each case, the SDF paused its operations against ISIS to confront Turkey. In each instance, ISIS used the opportunity to regroup.
Then, in 2019, Turkey launched a larger offensive to seize territory inside of Syria to create what it described as a “safe zone” to keep Kurdish militants farther away from Turkish territory. The counter-ISIS campaign almost came to an end then.
Meanwhile, ISIS has conducted multiple operations to break its fighters out of Kurdish-guarded prisons. In addition, ISIS appears to be increasing its activity at the massive al-Hol displaced persons and refugee camp.
Al-Hol has been an epic challenge since spring 2019 when the SDF cleared the last ISIS stronghold in eastern Syria and tens of thousands fled into the camp. It quickly grew from about 10,000 residents to 70,000—roughly 50 percent Iraqi, 40 percent Syrian, and 10 percent from other countries. Most were women and children, and many were family members of ISIS fighters and supporters.
I need to go on a slight tangent here about the nightmare the camp turned into from a logistical, political, and security standpoint. Yes, this is airing some dirty laundry, but it’s also important for people to understand the different equities of government agencies and how difficult foreign policy can be.
When the SDF liberated the last ISIS-held territory in Syria in 2019, I was managing editor of the Lead Inspector General reports on Operation Inherent Resolve. I spent the next two years refereeing quarterly turf wars over the reporting on conditions at the camp.
The military command on the ground, U.S. Central Command, the Defense Department’s policy office for the operation, and the Defense Intelligence Agency were adamant that al-Hol posed a serious threat to the counter-ISIS campaign and that ISIS was active and recruiting in the camp.
The military argued that the massive population of children—the estimate was more than half the camp population was 12 or younger—was the next generation of ISIS and being radicalized in the camp. The Defense Department said that the longer the population remained in the camp, the greater the danger. The message from military leaders was that the U.S. and foreign governments needed to repatriate the camp residents ASAP or risk further radicalization, violence, and instability.
The State Department and USAID bristled at much of what the Defense Department said and how it said it. The civilian agencies argued that the residents of the camp were largely innocent bystanders who were trapped in a humanitarian crisis. The camp was a humanitarian facility, not a detention camp, and it was run by civilian actors. The Defense Department was overstating the threat, hyping the ISIS presence, and “militarizing” a humanitarian operation, they said.
The “foreigners annex” in the camp was particularly problematic. That was where the 10k people from countries other than Iraq and Syria lived. The State Department eschewed any language that implied the residents of that section were “detainees” even though the section was fenced off and guarded and residents couldn’t leave that section without permission and supervision.
Unlike many of the Iraqis and Syrians in the camp who lived in areas that ISIS had invaded, and therefore were not as likely to be fans of ISIS, the foreigners had traveled from places ranging from Eastern Europe to the Caribbean with their husbands and fathers who had joined ISIS. There was no easy way to determine how many had come voluntarily because they supported the cause, and how many were innocent and brought against their will.
The Kurdish-led Syrian forces who oversaw security at the camp—this was also a dispute among the agencies about the extent to which there was a security presence in versus around the camp—argued that all the women in the annex were ISIS supporters.
What was not in dispute, however, was that section of the camp was volatile. There were women in the annex—and the broader camp—who were trying to impose Sharia. There were trials and murders. The Defense Department said that was all evidence of the threat while the other agencies tried to downplay the violence and danger.
I was largely stuck trying to adjudicate the disparate views and come to some consensus in our reporting. This situation was a microcosm of the interagency process and cultural differences among agencies. My colleagues and I felt that the Defense Department reporting was sound and credible. We felt that our partners at the other IG offices were deferring to the perspectives of the State Department and USAID and not remaining detached and independent as IG offices should.
Of course, our partners at the other IG offices felt the same about us. They believed we were captive to the Defense Department line and blind to the perspectives of the other agencies.
I felt then and still feel that my team was maintaining independence and calling balls and strikes. The data and empirical evidence regularly showed that al-Hol was a dangerous place and ISIS was actively propagandizing and recruiting and stoking violence.
The Defense Department was constantly frustrated because there wasn’t a military solution. Iraq was wary of repatriating its tens of thousands of citizens over fears they were ISIS members or sympathizers and would further destabilize Iraq. Other nations were similarly reluctant to repatriate their citizens. And some of the Syrian residents had no homes to return to and the local authorities also had suspicions and concerns about whether Syrians in the camp were ISIS affiliated.
Hence, the population in the camp has decreased slowly, but remains around 50,000, and violence and radicalization seem to be getting worse.
So, back to the current story and the growing danger at al-Hol.
The humanitarian organization Save the Children reported recently that two Egyptian girls were found dead in the camp. Subsequent reporting indicates they were beheaded.
Dozens of people have been murdered in the camp this year and violence has been trending up, according to humanitarian groups and media reporting.
The most recent Lead Inspector General report on Operation Inherent Resolve had some concerning things to say about developments at al-Hol.
The [Defense Intelligence Agency] reported that ISIS regularly smuggles weapons, money, communications equipment, and other items into al-Hol and smuggles out women and adolescent children. ISIS adherents in al-Hol have created institutions in the camp in an effort to “subvert camp- provided services,” and overt displays of allegiance by ISIS adherents “demonstrate the enduring presence of ISIS’s ideology” in the camp, the DIA said.
State reported that there were 7 reported killings in al-Hol during the quarter, a decrease from 17 killings in the camp during the previous quarter. State said it could not ascertain which killings were associated with ISIS. The DIA reported that while most violence in the camp was conducted by ISIS, the poor conditions and scarce resources in the densely crowded camp are drivers for other criminality.
State said that security in al-Hol Camp remained a challenge for local security partners, and threatened the civilian population and humanitarian workers who State said were “risking their lives to provide vital assistance.”
In September, the SDF interdicted an attempted suicide attack on the camp. They got lucky when one of the two vehicles heading to the camp detonated prematurely, and SDF forces then eliminated the fighters in the other vehicle, which contained a large amount of explosives.
That incident occurred after the SDF conducted a weeks-long clearing operation in the camp. According to the IG report:
During the operation, SDF Asayish forces detained more than 200 suspected ISIS members. The SDF reported that it found a large quantity of killing and torture devices used by ISIS to forcefully indoctrinate and recruit camp residents. SDF forces freed six women who were tortured and chained by ISIS operatives. USCENTCOM said some of these women had been captured as children and held by ISIS for years, including one teenage girl who was captured at the age of nine in 2014 and had been sold multiple times by ISIS members.
The SDF also confiscated 25 kilograms of explosives and 25 hand grenades, and removed ISIS supply and logistics materials, USCENTCOM reported. SDF forces destroyed 2 dozen tunnels and trenches used to hide weapons and facilitate movement, as well as dozens of tents used by ISIS to teach its ideology and to conduct court-like proceedings to impose punishments on those viewed as having violated its violent extremist ideology.
Suffice to say, if the SDF abandons security at the prisons and camps to confront Turkish ground forces, ISIS is the only winner.
I have noted all along that there is no easy or palatable solution to the situation in Syria. It is in my opinion the most complicated foreign policy challenge in the world right now.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the graphic design skills to try to draw a Venn diagram, so here’s my narrative explanation of the complexity and the complementing and conflicting interests. There are seven principal actors in Syria: the Assad regime, Iran, Russia, Turkey, SDF, United States, and ISIS.
Bashar al-Assad is obviously focused on staying in power and is closely allied with Iran and Russia who share that interest. Assad is at odds with Turkey, which has been supporting anti-regime forces, particularly hardcore Islamist groups. Assad is no fan of ISIS but hasn’t had to make fighting them a primary focus since the SDF and United States have led that effort. However, ISIS has been gradually oozing into regime-controlled territory. There is no love lost between Assad and the United States.
Iran supports Assad for a host of reasons, largely to maintain the land bridge to Lebanon for Hezbollah and to threaten Israel. Assad’s survival is of paramount importance to Iran’s malign activity in the region. Iran is obviously aligned with Russia as part of the anti-United States axis in the world and they cooperate in Syria and now Ukraine. Iran and Turkey have a complicated relationship. They share some interests—and trade—but they are on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war. Iran has no love for ISIS, but not a lot of motivation to combat the terrorist group. While the United States and Iran have a shared counter-ISIS interest, it’s hardly enough to offset all the other areas of competition and confrontation.
Russia is interested in Syria because it provides access to the Mediterranean. Russia also got in bed with Assad to have leverage in the region and another pressure point against the United States. Russia also used Syria as a test range to experiment with military tactics and technologies. As it learned, however, it’s one thing to fight a ragtag, lightly armed insurgent group and a different matter to fight a nation with a professional military and some of the best equipment the west can provide. Russia provides some check on ISIS, but it also engages in destabilizing activities to undermine the U.S. counterterrorism effort in Syria.
Turkey, as noted earlier, wants to eliminate Kurdish separatists in Syria and Iraq. While Turkey is a NATO ally, it has been a constant thorn in the side of the counter-ISIS campaign. The United States and Turkey have been at odds over Syria for years. Turkey is generally indifferent toward ISIS in Syria.
The SDF is interested in fighting ISIS and surviving. The SDF is a non-state force and faces the most uncertain future of any actor in Syria. Unless somehow the Kurds manage to create an independent state—something that would send Turkey ballistic—the Syrian Kurds will have to mend fences with the regime that eventually reclaims Syrian territory. The hope is that there is a transition to a post-Assad government that is democratic and inclusive, but I have a bridge to sell you if you think Assad will agree to that.
As a quick aside, this has been one of the major flaws to U.S. policy toward Syria. The United States wants to see a political transition in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. That resolution was unrealistic from the day it was approved. Any student of the Assad family will tell you they will burn the country to the ground before surrendering power. Why do you think the civil war remains unresolved after 11 years? An international campaign to topple the regime would turn into another Iraq, and Assad knows that. So, he’s been slow rolling the international community and the UN process.
Anyhow, the point is that Syria is an absolute viper’s nest and balancing all the competing interests to maintain a bubble in the east of the country for the United States to continue the counter-ISIS mission is not something that can continue indefinitely. Trying to wait everyone out has been the implied approach, but Turkey is tiring of the status quo.
A Turkish ground campaign—which you can bet the United States is doing everything behind closed doors to prevent—could start unraveling the whole thing. While it wouldn’t have the same emotional impact as the crumbling of the Afghanistan campaign, the terrorism and security ramifications would be far greater.
This might finally be the moment when diplomats from adversarial nations decide to sit down and forge some truly ugly compromises to work toward an end state that a lot of people will disdain, but will reduce the humanitarian crisis and the threat of international terrorism. Or, it’s the beginning of a process that sets off a mad dash in eastern Syria as the various actors reshuffle the deck. If the later happens, I predict the exit of U.S. troops, conflict between the SDF and Turkey, and Assad, Russia, and Iran slowly reclaim territory as ISIS scrambles to make gains.
Let’s hope that the United States and Turkey can sit down and discuss an alternative to further Turkish advances in Syria.