Armed Conflict in 2017 Part Two: Syria and International Terrorism

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Last week, in part one of the review of 2017, we reviewed Rohingya Crisis, conflict in Africa, and Ukraine. This week we will address Syria and ISIS and global terrorism, completing the five topics that this blog has covered. It should be stated again that armed conflict is not a state of affairs that affects the entirety of the world but instead can be considered more in terms of hotspots of violence, or ‘badlands’ in an otherwise increasingly peaceful world. The exception to the general rule is the distinct category of violence termed terrorism, a disputed and misused term, while the activity it refers to is better understood as the deliberate targeting of civilians for political reasons. The difference between terrorism and other types of armed violence is that it is not restricted to the badlands of violence, whether these be within a state or region, but has a more general reach in terms of where violence takes place.

There should also be a nod towards crises and conflicts that this blog was unable to cover or did not cover throughout the year. An example of the first was the increasing tension between North Korea and the United States, with the Korean leadership’s goal of developing nuclear weapons in the form of intercontinental ballistic missiles a major concern to South Korea, Japan and the US. The danger is not simply one of North Korea striking at a far enemy that it has seen as an enemy since the Korean War but also the resumption of a war between North and South Korea, who stopped fighting decades ago but never declared peace and with the additional possibility of Japan being sucked deeper into the crisis.  An example of the latter is the war in Yemen where the government and Houthi rebels are deadlocked and the Iranian backed Houthis are under constant air and ground attack from a Saudi-led coalition. The outcome of what many argue is a civil war made worse by being a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. As is the case with other conflicts appearing in the blog, the most devastating impact of armed conflict is not the casualties from battle between armed protagonists but the deaths and disease resulting from damage to infrastructure, medical facilities and lack of access to food.

Events in Syria during 2017 were dominated by the elimination of ISIS and the ascendancy of the Assad regime on the battlefield. ISIS fell due to competing advances by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies and the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which were backed by the airpower of Russia and the US-led coalition respectively. The Syrian War continued to be hideously complex. Turkey entered northern Syria as a result of its concerns over expanding Kurdish territory. Israel launched airstrikes at targets linked to Hezbollah and both Iran and Hezbollah retained a heavy presence in support of the Assad regime. A chemical attack by the regime in April on rebel held Khan Sheikhoun was immediately punished by a US cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield, a rare instance of the US actually targeting the Syrian military. The US also provided ground troops in support of the SDF advance into Raqqa, which while liberated from ISIS bore the scars of years of bombing and the final ground assault. The composition of the Opposition continued to be varied, ranging along a spectrum with competing visions of a future Syria without Assad that included moderates, Islamists and jihadists, some of whom were fighting each other. One example is the protracted battle in Idlib province that has seen HTS, a jihadist group formerly linked to Al-Qaeda, emerge as the dominant faction. Syrian government forces have been active on multiple fronts, including Idlib in the north and the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. While the fighting has been intense there has been little concrete success from mediation and negotiation at Geneva and Astana, with de-escalation zones proving ineffective. Where there has been agreement it has been at the local level with opposition fighters and their families being moved to other opposition areas in Syria, notably Idlib. This effectively means moving from one siege to another with temporary respite from air attack, starvation and lack of medical supplies. As it stands, while Russia and Iran continue to support the Assad regime and the Opposition continues to reject a future Syria with Assad in power, the regime holds the upper hand.

The fortunes of ISIS were mixed. Its quasi-state straddling Syria and Iraq was comprehensively crushed as the major cities and territory it held were taken back. This was the culmination of campaigns that began in 2016 and also included the retaking of the city of Sirte in Libya. Further abroad, an ISIS linked group took the city of Marawi, which was quickly taken back. It would be a mistake to declare ISIS as done, the self-declared Islamic State was always vulnerable as it had pitted itself against all-comers and presented a clear target, but its strength lies in ideology and the recruitment of the disenfranchised as well as territory. Pockets of resistance remain in Iraq and Syria and there are franchises and associated groups in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and Afghanistan, amongst others. 2017 has seen the defeat of the quasi-state that was Islamic State alongside an increase in its activities elsewhere. International terrorism linked to ISIS, in the form of shootings and bombings, struck at numerous places across Europe, Africa and Asia. These included Stockholm, St Petersburg, Tehran, Barcelona, Cambrils, Manchester and London. Many of these places had seen themselves as having avoided the type of attacks that had taken place previously in Berlin, Paris and Nice. Great Britain in particular had a bad year with multiple attacks and the Manchester Arena attack targeting a concert attended by children a low point. One commonality in these attacks was that they killed randomly, killing and injuring people of various nationalities. In the more conflict-prone areas of the world there were also attacks that stood out against the backdrop of persisting terrorist violence. In Baghdad a series of bombings deliberately targeted Shia Muslims breaking their Ramadan fasts, in Egypt an attack on worshippers at a Sufi mosque killed hundreds, as did a truck bomb in Somalia. The attacks at al-Rawda and Mogadishu have the ignoble achievement of ranking in the top ten of recorded terrorist attacks in terms of casualties. Not to be outdone the Taliban killed hundreds in an attack on Afghanistan’s diplomatic quarter.

The above is a summary only, with much left out. The Syrian War in particular is a multi-faceted one that has multiple incompatibilities and continues to resist mediation. ISIS is but one group amongst many with a jihadist or fundamentalist bent and it has dominated the headlines due to its existence as a quasi-state holding territory. Its demise does not mean the end of fundamentalism or the insurgency and terrorism linked to it. The question now is what to expect in 2018 as regards Syria, ISIS, the Rohingya, Ukraine and Africa.

The blogs concerning the above conflicts can be accessed at the CARIS website, which has links for Twitter and Facebook:

https://turnerconflict.com/

Next week: Part three of this review, with forecasts for 2018.

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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