Syria

“The sound of gunfire outside makes me forget the hunger pangs,” says Um Mohamed, trembling with fright. This was after the battle intensified between Syrian regime forces and fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) in the city of Deir Ezzor. Military experts predicted that ISIS would fall back towards Deir Ezzor city when faced with significant pressure during battles in Raqqa and al-Bab.

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US President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) on January 27, barring refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries—Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Iran, and Iraq—from entering the United States for at least 90 days, leaving refugee and immigrant communities in limbo. Trump’s Executive Order also suspends the US refugee resettlement program for 120 days, indefinitely suspends Syrian refugee resettlement to the United States, and caps the number of all refugees admitted at 50,000 per year. On February 3, a Seattle federal judge temporarily blocked the travel ban, after which Cairo Airport issued a statement saying it will allow travelers from the seven countries to board flights to the United States. As the case makes its way through the courts, the future of Iraqi, Syrian, and Sudanese refugees in Cairo expecting to resettle in the United States, has now been called into question.

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On January 27, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order on immigration, titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” The order places a ban on the entry of foreign nationals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen for 90 days; suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days; and blocks the entry of Syrian nationals indefinitely.  

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The ceasefire agreement recently negotiated by Russia, Turkey, and Iran preserves Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, but the deal itself is significant because for the first time the key players, with the exception of the United States, have come to the table with an understanding that a political solution to the conflict is no longer a viable option, according to two Middle East analysts at the Atlantic Council.

“The idea of political transition in Syria is done,” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “The opposition can no longer achieve political change through military action, or indeed through the negotiation process,” he said.

“There was never any way that that was going to happen unless there was military leverage used against the regime, because the regime was never going to agree to a political transition, nor has it ever pretended that it would,” he added.

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The Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, consecrate Russia’s primacy in Syria, launched with its entrance into the conflict in 2015, and extended with its ability now to convene peace talks and dictate terms.

The outcome of the talks on January 23 also put on display the ascendant axis of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese Islamist militant group Hezbollah, and Iran, backed by Russia and now facilitated by Turkey.

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Incoming US administration must draw a red line between al Qaeda and US-backed rebels, say analysts

US President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration must consider the far-reaching consequences of allowing US-backed opposition forces to work with al Qaeda in Syria, Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said at the Atlantic Council on January 12.

Policy should not be dictated simply by whether or not a particular extremist group poses an immediate threat to the United States, said Lister. Rather, “there is a broader interest-based assessment that needs to be made,” he said. Because al Qaeda was not countered from the outset of the conflict in Syria, its extremist ideology has become normalized within the opposition, and they are now far more dangerous to the United States, Lister added.

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US President-elect Donald Trump’s national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, on January 10 sought to reassure US allies of the incoming administration’s commitment to alliances.

Flynn said the incoming National Security Council’s mission, guided by Trump’s vision to “make America great again,” will be supported by an overarching policy of “peace through strength.”

“As we examine and potentially re-baseline our relationships around the globe we will keep in mind the sacrifices and deep commitments that many of our allies and our partners have made on behalf of our security and our prosperity,” Flynn said at a conference at the US Institute of Peace that was co-hosted by the Atlantic Council.

“In fact,” he added, “alliances are one of the great tools that we have and the strength of those alliances magnify our own strengths.”

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Secretary of State warns against ‘factless political environment,’ says the United States has been leading

US Secretary of State John Kerry on January 10 took a thinly veiled swipe at US President-elect Donald Trump while warning of the perils of living in a “factless political environment” and expressing consternation that the process for nominating officials to serve in the next administration is being flouted.

“Every country in the world better… start worrying about authoritarian populism and the absence of substance in our dialogue,” Kerry said, noting that there is a long, well-defined history of what happens when economic fear is exploited by “simplistic sloganeering politics.” Kerry spoke at an event at the US Institute of Peace—“Passing the Baton 2017”—that was co-hosted by the Atlantic Council.

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Though Turkey’s engagement in the war in Syria has resulted in a series of attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) over the course of the past year, the most recent attack on a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Day will only harden the Turkish government’s resolve to defeat the Islamist group, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“I think these attacks have pushed the Turks to conclude that this [war against ISIS] is something we have to finish,” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “In that sense, it’s focusing anti-ISIS efforts, not disrupting them,” he added.

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The assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey on December 19, while a tragic incident, is unlikely to have a significant impact on the diplomatic relationship between Moscow and Ankara that has been forged over priorities in Syria, according to two Atlantic Council analysts.

“This incident, in theory, could be a pretext for the Russians to do something against the Turks, but there is no interest in Moscow to do that,” said John. E. Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.

“This is one of those spectacular incidents that is a one-off,” he added.

Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said: “Russia has every incentive to express its displeasure at the incident and express sorrow at the tragedy that took place, but also to manage it.”

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