Mona Yacoubian discusses the state of play in Syria ahead of important withdrawal deadlines this week for removing heavy weapons from Idlib province. Yacoubian also discusses the waves of migration forced by the crisis, noting that 2018 has been the worst year to date for internally displaced Syrians; and the recent news that U.S. special operations forces are likely to remain in the country indefinitely to prevent a possible re-emergence of ISIS.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.

Transcript

Tim Farley (Host): What has been happening, and what is about to happen in Syria? There are some important deadlines approaching, and we wanted to talk about the latest situation in Syria. Mona Yacoubian is senior policy advisor with the U.S. Institute of Peace. The Twitter handle is @USIP, and Mona joins us. Mona, welcome back. Thanks for being here today.

Mona Yacoubian: Thank you for having me.

Tim Farley: Talk about these upcoming deadlines.

Mona Yacoubian: Well, there has been a demilitarization agreement in Idlib. This is the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. And earlier last month there was fear that the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, was going to mount a major assault to take back this last piece of territory. Instead, at the last minute, Russia and Turkey negotiated an agreement to create a demilitarized zone. And so, as part of that agreement, there are a couple of deadlines, one of which is today, by which all heavy weapons have to be withdrawn from the territory, from that demilitarized zone, and it appears that that is happening.

The stickier, more difficult deadline is on October 15. On that date, all of the extremist elements, these are sort of Al-Qaeda affiliated armed groups, are supposed to have been pulled out from that territory. Now, that's going to be a much more difficult hurdle, I think, to cross, and so we'll have to see what happens.

Tim Farley: What do we make of this Turkey addition to the equation? I mean, we knew a lot about Russia's relationship with Syria, but what is Turkey getting out of this?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, Turkey is really a key regional stakeholder in this. They have a lot of influence over a number of these armed groups that are in Idlib, and Idlib is a territory that directly borders Turkey. Turkey really has two key interests in this. One is they already host three and a half million Syrian refugees, so they really are not interested in having any additional refugee flows in their country. So, they're really looking to create some kind of a buffer along their border with Syria. And the second issue has to do with the Kurds, who have territory along that border, and Turkey really wants to prevent any sort of Kurdish entity on its southern flank.

Tim Farley: They consider the Kurds a rebel group in and of themselves, especially against Turkey. Right?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, I think that Turkey considers the Kurds an existential threat. They have long-standing issues with Kurds in their own country, and so they've been deeply opposed to the Kurdish sort of growing level of autonomy inside Syria.

Tim Farley: Additionally, we saw the shooting down of a jet, a Russian aircraft. This was supposedly in response to an Israeli air assault. Moscow is blaming Israel, so this is just ratcheting up tensions in surrounding countries. Correct?

Mona Yacoubian: No, absolutely. I mean, this is, in some ways, why I think Syria really remains one of the most dangerous areas in the world, and it's because there was an Israeli incursion into Syrian airspace. This has happened repeatedly over the last couple of years, and the Syrians, in an effort to shoot down the Israeli jets, ended up actually shooting down a Russian plane.

Now, the Russians are blaming the Israelis for this, indirectly, saying that the Israelis sort of shielded themselves behind the Russian plane. Regardless, it has clearly ratcheted tensions, and in response, Russia has provided more advanced surface-to-air missile systems to Damascus, and so this is just going to add one more complicating factor to an already very, very complex situation.

Tim Farley: Mona Yacoubian with us, senior policy scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, updating Syria. Recently, I think the most recent comments on this of the United States, both in the person of the National Security Advisor John Bolton and President Trump, had said that the U.S. would not be withdrawing from Syria as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, so they've now actually dragged Iran into this discussion too. Is there any sense, is there any clarity on what exactly the U.S. role is, or what it wants it to be, relative to Syria right now?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, I think the U.S. is starting to take a much more forward-leaning position on Syria. You referenced National Security Advisor Bolton's remarks. There is a small U.S. military presence on the ground in Syria. At one point President Trump had talked about withdrawing those troops. Now it seems fairly clear that those troops are there to stay, they're Special Operations Forces, at least for the foreseeable future. And I think we're seeing the U.S. take a more activist approach in terms of a new team being named to lead Syria policy in an effort to try and reinvigorate the Geneva process, and for the U.S. to really play kind of a more active role on Syria. So yes, I do think we're seeing a shift in that way.

Tim Farley: Usually President Trump puts it in the context of ISIS. Is that battle won or not?

Mona Yacoubian: You know, ISIS has been eliminated from 98% of the territory that it occupied, but I think the battle is still far from over. I think what we've learned is even once the military piece of the battle is won, there's the efforts to need to stabilize the areas and to ensure that ISIS is not able to re-emerge. 

We're also seeing evidence of ISIS sleeper cells emerging. There was one that was rolled up in Raqqa, in Syria, recently. So, I think we're just probably heading into a new phase of conflict with ISIS, one in which perhaps if it's defeated militarily, it morphs into a fairly potent insurgency on the ground.

Tim Farley: And it seems like Bashar al-Assad is there for at least the foreseeable future, in part because there's nothing that would take his place that we can easily see filling that void if he were somehow to be removed from office.

Mona Yacoubian: I think that's true, and I think he also, of course, has the strong backing of Russia and Iran, which has really made all the difference in terms of his ability to hold onto power, and there's no sign of either of them backing off from that any time soon.

Tim Farley: And the refugee problem continues. Right? I mean, people just have no place to live. It's struggling to get water, to get things to just survive the day.

Mona Yacoubian: It does, indeed, and I think what many people don't realize is that this year for Syria was the worst year in terms of internal displacement out of the now more than seven years of conflict in Syria. So, the humanitarian crisis continues unabated as the conflict rolls on.

Tim Farley: All right. Mona, thank you so much. It's not always a pretty picture, but it is a picture we need to see every once in a while. Mona Yacoubian, thanks for being on POTUS today.

Mona Yacoubian: Thank you so much for having me.

Tim Farley: Mona Yacoubian is a senior policy scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, updating us today, as she does from time to time, on hot spots, in this particular case Syria, but giving you a sense of how things are working or not in that country, and tweeting @USIP.

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