Turkish President Recep Erdogan reiterated that the “ultimate goal” of Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield is the establishment of a five-thousand square kilometer ‘safe zone’ that includes Al-Bab, Manbij, and Ar-Raqqa City in Northern Syria. Meanwhile, preparations continued for the next round of Geneva Talks on the Syrian Civil War scheduled to begin on February 23.
The U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS in Syria is in jeopardy as Turkey threatens an offensive against the U.S.’s primary partner force on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey has stated its intent to shift its focus from ISIS to the Syrian Kurds after the seizure of the ISIS-held town of al Bab in Northern Aleppo Province, which ISW forecasts is likely in the coming weeks.
Russia resumed its aggressive air campaign in northern Syria in a renewed attempt to defeat the acceptable opposition and coerce the integration of its remaining fighters into Salafi-jihadi groups, demonstrating its unfitness to serve as a U.S. counter-terrorism partner.
U.S. President Donald Trump held a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on January 28 that included talks on “mutual cooperation” against ISIS in Syria. President Trump later solicited the support of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for an unspecified initiative to establish ‘safe zones’ in Syria.
Russia shifted the focus of its air campaign to Eastern Syria from January 14 – 25 in order to counter a major offensive by ISIS in Deir ez-Zour City. Nonetheless, the dramatic surge in strikes against ISIS in Syria represents an attempt by Russia to maintain its strategic interest in bolstering the claim of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to all of Syria rather than an opportunity to serve as a reliable counter-terrorism partner.
Delegations from the regime and opposition held indirect negotiations on the Syrian Civil War at the Astana Talks brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran on January 23 - 24 but failed to reach an initial breakthrough on efforts to reinforce a faltering nationwide ceasefire. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda continued to consolidate control over Idlib and Western Aleppo Provinces in preparation for the next phase of its campaign against the regime.
Russia and Turkey implemented a nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement on December 29 in preparation for negotiations between the regime and opposition scheduled to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan on January 23. The deal will exclude all groups designated as “terror organizations” by the UN Security Council including ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS).
Turkey, Russia, and Iran released a joint statement - termed the ‘Moscow Declaration’ - noting that all three countries agree to “facilitate and become the guarantors” of any political agreement to end the Syrian Civil War following a trilateral meeting in Moscow, Russia on December 20. Meanwhile, pro-regime forces announced their full control over Aleppo City on December 22 following the last evacuations from the remaining opposition-held districts of Eastern Aleppo City.
Opposition forces and civilians began to evacuate from Eastern Aleppo City on December 15 following bilateral negotiations between Russia and Turkey. Opposition forces also agreed on medical evacuations from Fu'ah and Kefraya in Idlib Province after Iran threatened to collapse the agreement. Meanwhile, ISIS recaptured the city of Palmyra in Eastern Homs Province on December 11, marking the first seizure of a major urban center by ISIS in Iraq and Syria since May 2015