SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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Part One of this series discussed why it is not easy to arrive at a coherent national security objective for Syria. The Trump administration inherited from its predecessor a policy catastrophe: the carcass of a state set upon by a ruling family whose homicidal excesses were protected by Iran (with which the Obama administration desperately wished to have a nuclear agreement); and ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State), which was given sufficient time to sink roots in Syria and mount ferocious terror attacks in Turkey and Western Europe. Having been dealt this worst of all possible hands, what could the new administration realistically hope to achieve in Syria?

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The geopolitical war on Syria and its future has entered a new, more complicated phase that will draw a new map of influence across the country. That map will be defined by the presence of military bases belonging to regional and global powers who are attempting to strengthen and stabilize the map of future influence. This is a war of borders, in which each force tries to take control of Syria’s frontiers with Jordan and Iraq to secure its clout in the Syrian desert. The United States finds itself torn between a number of battlefield allies due to the ambiguity of its policies on the conflict in Syria. It has partnered with Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) as an essential ally fighting the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Iraq, while allying with several Free Syrian Army (FSA) units for the same purpose in Syria. At the same time, it is trying to prevent the Syrian regime and its allies from reaching the Iraqi border and creating a passageway between the PMU in Iraq and regime forces in Syria.

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Throughout the conflict in Syria, regime forces and their allies have deliberately and systematically targeted medical workers, ambulances, and hospitals in opposition-held areas. There have been more than 454 attacks on medical facilities in the conflict, with the Assad regime and Russia responsible for ninety-one percent of them. Over 814 Syrian health workers have been killed since 2011. There is a strategic logic at play: by inflicting widespread injuries on local populations and then routinely destroying the healthcare that would treat them, areas eventually become unlivable. This strategy aims to break the will to resist in opposition-held communities and displace populations outside of regime control.

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The decision of the Trump administration to end its support for armed, anti-Assad Syrian rebels again raises questions of what the United States considers a desirable and attainable end-state for Syria, and how it plans to achieve it. These questions were avoided by an Obama administration that treated Syria’s humanitarian and security catastrophes as a public information campaign to be managed so that it could get and keep a nuclear deal with Bashar al-Assad’s best friend: Iran. Obviously, the Trump administration subordinates nothing to the nuclear agreement. But given the Syrian policy inheritance they have received from their predecessors, how do the president and his advisers even begin to define achievable objectives and sensible strategies?

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The preacher climbed the pulpit, his head covered, with an air of prestige and dignity. But the worshippers quickly realized he was a member of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance dominated by former al-Qaeda affiliate Fatah al-Sham, and paid little attention to what he said. He took out a smartphone and recited his sermon from it. The contrast was stark: the preacher with the latest phone delivering a sermon to a crowd of impoverished residents in the border village of Khirbet al-Joz in Idlib governorate. The majority now live in camps and can barely feed themselves, and came to the mosque to enjoy a little cool air and escape the forty degree heat of midday outside.

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On July 19, the Trump administration decided to end the CIA program meant to arm moderate Syrian rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad. While the CIA 'train and equip' program ends, the US military involvement continues through air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), and a Pentagon run train and equip program for the fight for Raqqa along the Euphrates river. Listen to Rafik Hariri Center’s Senior Resident Fellow, Aaron Stein's commentary on the decision and the continued US military campaign in Syria.

If you are unable to listen to the audio, please read the transcript below: 

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A recent article by Sulome Anderson on the presence of Hezbollah-trained Palestinian fighters inside Yarmouk camp, once Syria’s largest Palestinian community and its most culturally significant, evoked controversy when a pro-Hezbollah commentator called into question Anderson’s reporting: “Do [Anderson and her editors] believe that Hezbollah marks its vehicles...with the logo of a Syrian-Palestinian group? Additionally, since when do Hezbollah commanders wear caps with [Palestinian faction] Fatah al-Intafada’s logos on them?” Anderson has since published a blow-by-blow rebuttal.

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Imagine if, in 1945, the War Department and senior American commanders in Europe and Asia had been permitted to define victory simply as the fall of Berlin and Tokyo, with no post-combat stabilization and reconstruction program for either Germany or Japan. Imagine if, in 2003, the United States had invaded Iraq without a realistic, implementable plan for governance after the fall of Baghdad and Saddam Hussein. Imagine if the West had fought Qaddafi in 2011 without much thought given to what would replace him. In fact, no imagination at all is required for the cases of Iraq and Libya. Both operations were undertaken with no serious regard to what would follow. Both produced disaster.

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The US-led anti-ISIS campaign has largely succeeded in conquering the group militarily, which has made it difficult for the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) to operate as a conventional state. As a result of losing most of its urban centers in both Syria and Iraq, the ISIS governance model of controlling and administering territories seems to also collapse. Experts, consequently, seem to be focusing on how ISIS is changing its military tactics to guerrilla warfare or hit-and-run tactics as it goes underground again. But not much attention is being paid to how ISIS’s economic practices are evolving to adapt to the group’s significant financial losses.

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Thirty kilometers north of the Syrian capital of Damascus, on a towering hill somewhat removed from the urban centers, sits Saydnaya prison. A previous inmate, Omar al-Shogre, describes it as a place where you are brought to die. According to Amnesty International, no less than three hundred imprisoned opposition members lost their lives there each month due to torture.

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