Hardin Lang

Axios: Window Narrowing to Stave Off Worst-Case Scenario in Southwest Syria

The Assad regime last weekend launched an offensive into southwest Syria aimed at dividing opposition forces in Daraa province and reasserting government control over the region.

Why it matters: The regime campaign, backed by Russian airpower, has already displaced at least 45,000 civilians — many seeking shelter along Jordan's closed border — and that number could soon reach 200,000. The UN has warned that a full-scale offensive could put as many as 750,000 lives at risk and prove as bloody as the sieges of “eastern Aleppo and eastern Ghouta combined" (which included the use of chemical weapons).

The details: Syria’s southwest is a strategically sensitive area that borders Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. The new regime offensive is taking place in a “de-escalation zone” negotiated last year by the U.S., Jordan and Russia — an agreement that decreased violence and lowered tensions between Israel and Iran over the latter’s presence in the area. This could all now change, and an Iranian role in the regime offensive could drag Israel deeper into the fight.

What’s next: There is a small window to prevent a worst-case scenario. The parties to the de-escalation agreement could try to resuscitate it, but no such effort appears underway. Although Moscow has reportedly reached out to Washington to broker a deal under which opposition fighters would turn over positions to regime forces, it is unclear if Washington could compel that outcome even if it wanted to.

If diplomacy cannot slow the fighting, the humanitarian situation will deteriorate. Most assistance to Syrians in the southwest is delivered via UN cross-border relief operations from Jordan. But if violence escalates, those operations could cease. If Jordan continues to keep its doors closed, displaced Syrians will be left to languish in informal settlements along the border or try their luck in areas controlled by the regime.

Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.

This piece originally appeared here.

Axios: Iraqi election upset could increase pressure for U.S. troop withdrawal

Following Iraq's parliamentary elections on Saturday, the political coalition of Muqtada al-Sadr — the firebrand nationalist Shiite cleric — has emerged as the surprising frontrunner, followed by Fatah, an alliance of leaders of Shiite paramilitary groups with close ties to Iran.

Why it matters: If the initial results are borne out, the new government will likely be far less favorable to the U.S. The next prime minister will have the power to call for a U.S. withdrawal, and the two leading coalitions have deep ties to armed groups that fought the American presence over the last decade.

While just over half of Iraq’s provinces have reported results, some trends are clear:

  • Turnout was low at 44.5 percent — the lowest since the 2003 U.S. invasion — appearing to reflect the Iraqi electorate's growing apathy and frustration with the country’s political class.

  • Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is underperforming in third place. A key ally and U.S. partner in the fight against ISIS, al-Abadi was expected to win a second term.

The U.S. still has over 5,000 troops in Iraq as part of campaign to defeat ISIS, but they are there only at Iraq's discretion. Both al-Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of Fatah, have long opposed the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Even if al-Abadi were somehow to hold onto his office, it is safe to assume that pressure for a quick U.S. drawdown will increase.

What’s next: The Iraqi electoral commission is expected to release official results on Wednesday evening. The coalition that wins the most votes will then be charged with forming a government that can win parliamentary endorsement. As no coalition is expected to win an outright majority, government formation could take months.

Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.

This piece originally appeared here.

Axios: As Dust Clears in Syria, Humanitarian Crises Remain

Last week’s strikes against Syria won’t change the arc of the conflict, nor will they alleviate the suffering of the civilian population: chemical weapons are responsible for but a tiny fraction of that suffering, and their absence will not stop the Assad regime from pressing its military advantage.

What’s next: Diplomats and donors must take steps to address looming humanitarian crises in two conflict-ravaged regions in northern Syria.

The worst trouble spots:

Idlib: Millions of Syrians have been displaced to this northwestern governorate, including many of the 130,000 civilians forced from the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta over the past month. Having secured Ghouta, the regime may now move against Idlib. The governorate is largely under the control of extremist factions, and humanitarian access is limited. Worst of all, civilians will have nowhere to run, since Turkey has closed its border in the area. If Ankara does not reverse this policy, millions of Syrians could find themselves trapped in a kill box. 

The northeast: Much of northeast Syria has been liberated from the Islamic State, but the fighting has taken a horrible toll: tens of thousands of people are living in camps; the city of Raqqa has been largely destroyed and is teeming with IEDs; and local authorities, with just a handful of aid workers, are struggling to cope. Most Syriansthought U.S. troops would remain for several years, but President Trump’s recent comments have left them worried that a hasty American withdrawal will plunge the northeast into chaos: Relief groups would be forced to withdraw as the Syrian Defense Force, Turkey and the Assad regime battle for control. Hundreds of thousands of people would be displaced in the process.

The bottom line: Missile strikes alone will not be enough to protect the progress that's been made in northeast Syria, nor to prevent Idlib from descending further into crisis. To do so, the U.S. must not abruptly disengage. Rather, it must maintain a troop presence in northeast Syria and unfreeze $200 million in U.S. stabilization assistance, channeling more aid to the displaced.

Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.

This piece originally appeared here.

Axios: U.S. pressure needed to prop up imperiled Syrian ceasefire

The Assad regime continues to flout the UN Security Council’s resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. Meanwhile, a Russian plan for a humanitarian corridor into Eastern Ghouta has collapsed amid renewed fighting, a sign that Moscow is not yet serious about reigning in their client in Damascus.

Why it matters: The 400,000 civilians trapped in Eastern Ghouta and over a quarter million Syrians in other remote and besieged areas are in acute need of humanitarian assistance. That aid will remain out of reach.

What's next: In the coming days, supporters of the UN resolution will ratchet up the pressure for the Assad regime and Russia to comply with the ceasefire. Russia will counter by seeking to revive its plan for a limited corridor, which does not comply with the terms of the UN resolution. In any event, humanitarian officials insist that a five-hour pause does not allow enough time to deliver the needed relief and organize the medical evacuations to and from Eastern Ghouta.

The bottom line: Russia has an advantage as the dominant external military player in Syria, but the U.S. has a seat at the table too, with some 2,000 troops in the northeast of the country. Any diplomatic effort to salvage a ceasefire must be led by the U.S. at the most senior level — a long shot, yes, but also an issue of great moral urgency.

Hardin Lang is vice president of programs and policy at Refugees International.

For the original article, click here.