January 4, 2023

IntelBrief: Violence and Humanitarian Situation in Syria Worsening

AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed

Bottom Line up Front

  • Russia’s faltering war effort in Ukraine has caused regional powers to exploit this and try to expand their influence in Syria, threatening to worsen humanitarian conditions there.
  • Moscow has stepped up diplomacy to normalize relations with the Assad regime and reintegrate Syria into the broader Middle East region, in part by opposing an extension of the United Nations cross-border humanitarian aid program for the Syrian people.
  • Turkiye resumed high-level engagement with Assad’s regime in late December, but Ankara continues to threaten military action against the Kurdish groups in northern Syria that are helping Washington combat remnants of Islamic State.
  • Iran is seeking to displace Russia as the predominant pro-Assad power in Syria, but in doing so is likely to further alarm Israel which is also reportedly moving closer to Moscow, particularly in relation to Ukraine.

The leadership and military of the Russian Federation are consumed with salvaging a faltering war effort that they expected would replace the government of Ukraine in a matter of days last February. In recent months, Russian battlefield defeats and significant personnel and equipment losses have compelled Russian commanders to redeploy some combat aircraft and forces, including experienced commanders and contract fighters from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, from such Middle Eastern battlefields as Syria and Libya. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the reported leader of the Wagner Group, has recently remarked on the difficulties of penetrating Ukrainian defenses. In Syria, Russia has become less vigilant in flying air strikes against anti-Assad groups in Syria, emboldening all opposition forces, including militant groups such as the Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Islamic State (ISIS), to step up their attacks on Syrian military forces. HTS controls much of the remaining opposition-held territory concentrated in Idlib Province and, in early December, Russian military officials accused the group of preparing to launch armed drone attacks against Syrian and Russian forces in northern Syria. On December 26, ISIS militants in Raqqa killed six members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-backed group at the core of Washington’s ongoing anti-ISIS mission in Syria. Also in December, U.S. forces in Syria conducted several raids to neutralize ISIS leaders operating in the country.

To compensate for the reduction of its operational tempo in Syria, Moscow has pursued political and diplomatic options to reassure the regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad and consolidate its gains. To foster reconciliation between the Assad government and Turkiye, which has been backing the anti-Assad opposition, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu hosted a December 28 meeting between Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and his Syrian counterpart Ali Mahmoud Abbas. Described by the Turkish Defense Ministry as “constructive,” the meeting - the first high-level engagement between Damascus and Ankara since the 2011 uprising - discussed Syria’s domestic conflict, Syrian refugees in Turkiye, and “joint efforts to combat all terrorist organizations in Syria.” The three agreed to continue meeting, including a planned foreign ministerial-level session. Appearing to want to block any Syria settlement that might be unfavorable to Assad, Russia also has been obstructing U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen’s efforts to reconvene a Constitutional Committee discussing a political settlement in Syria.

Russia has also sought to restore Assad’s legitimacy by trying to strangle a U.N. cross-border humanitarian aid program under which aid groups supply internally displaced and other vulnerable Syrians from the northern border with Turkiye, bypassing the Syrian government. In recent years, Russian diplomats have sought to end the program entirely and close down the crossings, arguing that all humanitarian aid should be distributed through the Syrian government, and agreeing to its continuation only after the UN Security Council narrowed the program’s access and scope. Such insistence comes despite recorded efforts by the Assad regime to manipulate aid over the course of the conflict, withholding it from opponents and channeling it to allies. Channeling aid solely through the Syrian government could further widen gaps in aid coverage, and potentially violate humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. In advance of the January 10 expiration of the U.N. mandate authorizing the cross-border aid effort, Russian diplomats are again insisting that the program should be terminated. On December 21, U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood, Alternate Representative of the United States of America for Special Political Affairs in the United Nations, countered the Russian position, stating: “The facts that led to that decision [to renew the U.N. resolution authorizing the program] in July have not changed. Humanitarian conditions in Syria are worse than they have ever been since the start of the conflict. As [Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths] mentioned, 15.3 million people will require humanitarian assistance in 2023. Cross-border humanitarian assistance deliveries are the most cost-effective and most scalable way to provide food, medical supplies, and other essentials to 2.4 million Syrians who are at risk of starvation, disease, and exposure to brutal winter conditions in the northwest. The U.N. cross-border operation is among the most secure and transparent anywhere in the world. There is simply no substitute for cross-border assistance.”

At the same time, the focus of Russia’s military on Ukraine has encouraged regional powers to expand their influence in Syria at Moscow’s expense. Yet, ongoing and potential actions by some regional powers in Syria not only complicate the achievement of U.S. and allied objectives, but also are certain to further disrupt the lives of the Syrian people and global aid efforts there. Despite expanding its engagement with the Assad regime, Turkiye continues to threaten a ground incursion in northern Syria against Kurdish militias, including those working with the U.S.-backed SDF. Fearing the likely Turkish action, the Kurdish core of the SDF has shifted its focus from supporting the U.S. fight against ISIS to securing its forces and territory against a Turkish advance. For their part, Iranian leaders are trying to take advantage of Russia’s distraction - as well as Assad’s need for economic aid - to displace Moscow as the preponderant pro-Assad military and political force in Syria. In advance of a visit to Damascus by Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi planned for early 2023, Iran reportedly is pressuring the Assad regime for concessions and agreements similar to those the regime granted to Russia to earn its military support in 2015. Iran reportedly is demanding that Iranians serving in Syria be treated in Syrian hospitals and have property rights equal to those of Syrian nationals and that Iranians facing charges in Syria be tried in Iran, not Syria. Additional Iranian influence in Syria – beyond the extensive support that Tehran provides to Assad in the form of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Forces (IRGC-QF)advisors, arms, funds, military infrastructure construction, investment, no-cost oil, and other in-kind help – is certain to prompt Israel to expand its already frequent air strikes against Iran-controlled installations in Syria. Even though Syria has become an arena for regional and global powers to try to advance their agendas, and with few prospects for peace and security to return, it appears that 2023 is set to only compound the misery and hardship suffered by Syria’s population since 2011.