Armed Conflict in 2017 Part Four: 2018 Forecasts for Syria and International Terrorism

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This week, the final part of the 2017 review looks at what 2018 holds for Syria and ISIS and global terrorism. As with the Rohingya Crisis and Ukraine, which were covered last week, these are brief overviews of what are complex situations extrapolating from the blogs throughout 2017 and making short term forecasts. Included below are links for more information on forecasts for armed conflict in 2018 to give wider perspective on the topics covered over the four weeks and introduce others that have been left out. Examples of the latter are the continuing North Korean crisis, the brutal war in Yemen, and Afghanistan. A guiding principle of the CARIS website is to provide information on armed conflict and its resolution and to point the reader elsewhere for more. This does not constitute a blanket recommendation or endorsement for third party material or a given view stated by them.

The Syrian War in 2018 will most likely be dominated by the Assad regime attempting to take the remainder of opposition held territory. This is a goal that it is capable of achieving provided that it continues to receive outside support but it is far from guaranteed. The current campaigns, which include Idlib (dominated by the Al-Qaeda linked HTS), Hama and Eastern Ghouta, indicate that the regime has little will to compromise with the remaining opposition forces. The consequences of this thus far have been well documented in Eastern Ghouta, an enclave that has resisted the government and its allies since the beginning of the war: a humanitarian crisis amid bombs. Should the regime be successful in its war goals then it will be a pyrrhic victory as it would effectively cripple the remaining moderate opposition and leave the government in possession of territories that will not be able to govern or move its forces through without risk of attack. The current situation is making a mockery of the de-escalation zones agreed at the Astana talks, which exist in name only. The reluctance of the opposition to attend Russian sponsored talks in Sochi is a consequence of this as any agreement made will constitute a negotiated surrender. Previous deals, also done under duress, which have allowed for population transfers have resulted in the movement of fighters and their families to Idlib province. This has had the dual outcome of eroding trust, as it puts the transferred population directly into another war zone, and of damaging the relationship between Turkey and Russia and Iran, as Turkey is a key opposition ally. Turkey has a presence in northern Syria and a further escalation of the fighting in both Idlib and Hama provinces may drive civilians northwards towards the Turkish border, potentially adding to the number of refugees Turkey is hosting. A further complication is the status of the Syrian Kurds, whose territorial gains in the Syrian War are a concern to Turkey and whose participation in the Sochi talks has been resisted by the opposition groups. Finally, we should note that the Syrian War is not simply about the incompatibilities between the government, a fractured opposition and the Kurds. It is also about the interests of regional and global actors who have a vested interest in the outcome of the war and these interests will continue to fuel the violence.

ISIS underwent a serious setback in 2017, effectively losing the caliphate and being knocked back in the majority of direct military confrontations. They are also struggling to maintain their social media presence as security services and the major media companies become more savvy at countering extremism online. They should not be treated as defeated, as regional affiliates continue to operate across world and the jihadist message still influences followers and new recruits. Without the core state the ISIS leadership are able to focus all their energies on the ‘near’ and ‘far’ abroad: for the ‘near’, read Egypt and Afghanistan as examples; for the ‘far’, read Europe, North America, and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). This focus will bring them into further rivalry with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates globally as they vie for dominance and with the Taliban in Afghanistan also. The conditions that enabled the rise of ISIS remain and the emergence of a new group should not be ruled out. The terrorism and insurgency underpinned by ideology of Salafi-Jihadism will continue to be a pervasive threat and the real question is as to whether it is a new group or one of Al-Qaeda or ISIS that becomes the primary driving force. Their fundamentalism guarantees that they will collide with government forces, whether these be secular dictatorships, democracies or otherwise.

This concludes the four-part review. During 2018 this blog will continue to cover the conflicts discussed above and return to the focus on Africa.

For more information regarding 2018 forecasts see:

https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/10-conflicts-watch-2018

https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2017/12/30/new-in-2018-conflict-hot-spots-to-watch/

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/12/global-conflicts-to-watch-in-2018/547913/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-defeat-syria-latest-iraq-2018-survive-a8107891.html

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/syria-peace-2018-180103110604320.html

The Africa series will continue throughout 2018.

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

 

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