Syria Project

Anti-ISIS Coalition Begins Losing Tribal Support in Syria

Major tribal leaders in eastern Syria may break away from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which would severely jeopardize the anti-ISIS mission by fracturing the US partner force in Syria. Leaders of the largest Arab tribal confederation in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zour Province have demanded that the SDF yield administrative control of that province to local tribal leadership before September 11, 2020. Tribal animosity toward the SDF has been building since mid-2019 due to the combined pressures of overlapping ISIS and pro-regime insurgencies as well as the SDF’s weak and under-resourced governance. The continued presence of SDF and coalition forces in Deir ez-Zour could become untenable if the SDF fails to find a compromise with increasingly fractured tribal elements.

Russia and Aligned Former Opposition Fighters Leverage Growing Anti-Assad Sentiment to Expand Control in Southern Syria

Russia and a group of reconciled former opposition fighters under its patronage are taking advantage of growing anti-Assad and anti-Iran sentiment to forcibly expand their influence in southern Syria independent of the regime in Damascus. A prominent Russian-backed former opposition commander announced the formation of a new “army” that plans to centralize forces across much of the province under his control. A newly established Russian-backed political body will likely parallel this new force. The creation of this new army and political body will likely increase Russian influence and could threaten the ability of the Assad regime and Iran to impose their will in this key region bordering US allies Israel and Jordan.

Pro-regime Forces in Idlib Posture for Resumption of Offensive

The ceasefire in Greater Idlib remains tenuous. Recent force disposition indicates that the Syrian Regime is preparing for a renewed offensive in Southern Idlib Province should the ceasefire break down, but both the timing and likelihood of the offensive’s success remain uncertain and conditions dependent. A renewed regime offensive will require Russian support to sustainably seize territory from anti-Assad forces. However, Russian support will likely be contingent on a new negotiated agreement between Russia and Turkey, and the COVID-19 pandemic will likely delay such negotiations. The Syrian regime may attempt an offensive without Russian support despite the likelihood that it will be unsuccessful. Any regime offensive, whether Russian-backed or unilateral, will exacerbate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Greater Idlib.

Turkey Commits to Idlib

The U.S. has an opportunity in Idlib to exploit the largest rift between Turkey and Russia in Syria to date while addressing a grave and dangerous humanitarian crisis, which will worsen in coming months without a robust international response. Turkey’s intervention in Idlib Province changed the military balance in northwest Syria and created an opportunity for the U.S. and Europe to engage at relatively low cost.

A Way Forward in Syria

ISW Board Chairman Jack Keane and Danielle Pletka: The president stood by his word and didn’t tolerate the Syrian dictator’s use of weapons of mass destruction. But while the recent strike on Syria was important and necessary—it was far from sufficient.