Syria

Readers of SyriaSource are all too familiar with an argument advanced in these pages for well-over two years: ISIS (Daesh, ISIL, Islamic State) should be neutralized quickly in eastern Syria; an American-led, professional ground force coalition-of-the-willing should be assembled to preempt ISIS terror operations in Turkey and Western Europe and minimize Syrian civilian casualties in complex urban battle terrain; and that a post-combat stabilization plan should be drafted and implemented to keep ISIS dead, one drawing on pre-ISIS local councils and the anti-Assad Syrian opposition. The idea was to parlay the defeat of ISIS into a stable, protected eastern Syria where humanitarian aid could be expedited and reconstruction begun, and to exclude the cause of terrorism and state failure in Syria—the Assad regime—from the area.

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The medical situation in Damascus’ Eastern Ghouta is deteriorating as the Syrian regime’s siege of the city surpasses four years, threatening an impending health crisis for civilians in need of treatment. These civilians reside just a few kilometers from the capital; however, they cannot go to the capital. The siege is happening under the watch of the international community, particularly the United Nations, raising questions about its ability to participate in rebuilding Syria in a way that protects civilians and restores stability in the region.

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As the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is driven from its strongholds in Syria, US-backed forces face the challenge of stabilizing these conflict-ravaged territories.

This task is made more urgent by the fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Iran-backed militias are swooping in on eastern Syria in an attempt to capitalize on ISIS’ defeat, said Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“If they succeed, the basis for ISIS 2.0 will be set,” said Hof, adding: “After all, it was the Iranian (and Russian)-supported brutality of the Assad regime that created the governance vacuum filled by ISIS in the first place.”

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on October 16 that they had seized control of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS’ “caliphate.” A US-backed civilian council, which has been based in Ayn Issa, north of Raqqa, will now seek to stabilize Raqqa.

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The Pentagon announced on August 21 that it agreed to a buffer zone (or deconfliction line) that roughly adhered to the Euphrates River. This new buffer zone agreement re-establishes a previous agreement and was reached after the United States shot down a Syrian regime SU-22 in June, creating fears of escalation that could draw international players into direct conflict. While the immediate purpose of the buffer zone is to prevent fighting between the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—and their myriad respective associated backers—to focus the fighting on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh), it also reconfigures the battlefield and creates new pitfalls and opportunities.

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Russia has decisively expanded its global footprint in a way that analysts say challenges the West and will force US President Donald J. Trump to rethink his “America First” strategy.

This challenge extends well beyond Russia’s neighborhood—Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic States—to Syria, Libya, and even Afghanistan. Western governments and intelligence agencies have also accused Russia of meddling in elections in the United States and Europe.

John E. Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, said Russian President Vladimir Putin is “pursuing a clear revisionist agenda designed to change the post-Cold War order in Eurasia; permit Moscow to establish a clear sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space; weaken NATO and the EU; weaken the transatlantic relationship; diminish American prestige and power; and project Russian power globally.”

With this as a backdrop, Trump and Putin will meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7. The meeting takes place amid investigations by a special prosecutor and congressional committees into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

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French President Emmanuel Macron would like to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to seek mutually acceptable solutions to crises that have bedeviled ties between the West and Russia over the past few years, France’s ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, said in an Atlantic Council phone briefing on June 19.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia “is not an existential threat” to Europe, said Araud.

“Russia has done things that we don’t accept, but at the same time Russia has its own legitimate interests, so let’s talk with the Russians to see whether we reach compromise deals which are mutually acceptable,” he said.

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US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to arm Kurdish rebels in Syria, despite objections from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicates that the new administration’s Turkey policy is secondary to winning the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

This decision “would suggest to me that Trump really doesn’t have a Turkey policy,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Turkey policy is secondary to the need to prosecute the war against ISIS quickly,” he added.

“The key actors in the US bureaucracy are not on team Turkey,” said Stein. “They don’t care. They are elevating different priorities now.”

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Emmanuel Macron’s election as the next president of France is positive news for Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Among the four leading candidates in the presidential election, Riyadh and Doha most favored Macron, whose foreign policy positions are pro-European Union (EU) and who is expected to continue Paris’ overall approach to international affairs. More specifically, Macron’s victory will likely preserve France’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have deepened under outgoing French President François Hollande and his predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy.

A victory for Macron’s rival, far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, would have been bad news for France-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations. Her foreign policy agenda entailed aligning Paris more closely with Moscow on regional issues, chiefly Syria, where Russia and the GCC’s interests have clashed. Le Pen also frequently accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of supporting the Islamic State in the Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda. A Le Pen victory could have severely reversed the growth of French-GCC relations.

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The proposal for de-escalation zones in Syria, which will enter into force at midnight on May 5, is unlikely to be effective in the long term, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“Maybe” the agreement will temporarily have a demonstrable effect on lowering the number of civilian deaths in Syria, said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, speaking in an interview with the New Atlanticist. However, he added, “I don’t see the thing lasting.”

The de-escalation zones, a Russian and Turkish-led initiative, backed by Iran, were agreed upon in a deal signed on May 9 as part of the ongoing United Nations Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. However, few details regarding implementation and monitoring of these zones have been released. The United States is not party to the agreement, and has expressed initial skepticism.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking at the Atlantic Council’s Istanbul Summit on April 28, urged the United States to end its support for Kurdish rebels in Syria and to extradite a cleric Turkey says orchestrated a failed coup attempt in July of 2016; he also accused some European countries of harboring terrorists. 

Erdoğan’s remarks offered a preview of his upcoming meeting with US President Donald Trump in Washington on May 16. The Turkish leader had been unsuccessful in his efforts to convince former US President Barack Obama to drop his support for the Kurdish militias who have proven to be one of the most effective forces fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Syria. He was optimistic that he could open a new, and very different, chapter in the US-Turkey relationship with Trump.

US support for the Kurds could be a sticking point in that relationship. In April, Turkey conducted a series of airstrikes against the Kurdish militias. These operations potentially put Turkey and the United States on a collision course.

Describing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the YPG’s political arm, the Democratic Union party (PYD) as the “aborted children” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a group that both the United States and Turkey consider a terrorist organization—Erdoğan said these groups will, sooner or later, “bite the hand that feeds them.”

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