SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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The quick visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Hmeimim airbase in Syria was all about Russian domestic politics. The first—and Putin hopes last—round of Russian presidential elections is scheduled for March 18, 2018. In his pre-Christmas proclamation of victory over “terrorists” and in preserving Syria as a “sovereign independent state,” Putin reiterated his central, Syria-related message to his nationalist domestic audience: Russia is back as a great power. In declaring to Russian pilots that “you are going home to your families, parents, wives, children and friends,” Putin sought to assure Russian voters that Syria would be no quagmire. Yet Putin’s second announcement of military withdrawal from Syria may, like the first (in March 2016), be more rhetorical than real.

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In his book entitled Barzani and the History of the Kurdish Liberation Movement, Masoud Barzani President of Iraqi Kurdistan, wrote that his father Mullah Mustafa once said: “We are willing to become the fifty-first American state if that is what it takes for our cause to succeed.” However, once the 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq was ratified with American’s blessing, the Mullah’s dream quickly faded. Kissinger later wrote in his book Years of Renewal that aid to the Kurds had amounted to “20 million USD and 1,250 tons of ammunition.”

Kurds refer bitterly to the first American betrayal: American Abrams tanks entering the city of Kirkuk bearing the Oh Hussein banner, a flag carried by some Shiite militants. Kurds point to two factors that were decisive in bringing about this violent end to their ambition to create an independent state: the American stance, and divisions between the leading Kurdish forces. As they enter the city of Raqqa, Syrian Kurds are wondering if the Americans will abandon them too. Are Kurdish forces being used to confront ISIS, only to be left to the mercy of neighboring countries and the Syrian regime?

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Media activists opposed to the Syrian government have documented much of the worst of the war in Syria. However, as President Bashar al-Assad regains control of opposition-held territory, these civilian journalists fear they will have no place in Syria’s future.

“It’s not like I did not see this coming. What were we expecting? The government will never allow the truth to come out,” Ahmed, a twenty-nine-year-old media activist who asked not to be identified by his real name for security reasons, tells Syria Deeply. He is among the many activists who fear that if Assad remains in power they will have no work – or worse – when fighting subsides.

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The arrest, this week, of several prominent jihadists in Syria by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is a third and possibly final chapter in the group’s coup against its mother organization al-Qaeda, one that was recognized in a harsh statement by the latter’s leader, Aymen Zawahiri. The controversial move is one way for HTS to finalize its mainstreaming gambit initiated by its leader in 2016.

On November 27, chat rooms with HTS supporters reported that two prominent jihadists namely sheikh Sami Uraydi and Abu Julaybib had been arrested after being convened to a meeting by HTS. The arrest appears to have targeted a number of members of the former Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), from which HTS eventually branched out. In August 2016, Nusra was dissolved when the group seceded from its parent organization al-Qaeda and rebranded under the name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS).

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In the past four years, Hezbollah’s has played  a primary role in Syria alongside forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to gain back control of over 60 percent of Syrian territory and over two thirds of its population. The organization’s success can be attributed to its strategy in the Lebanese and Syrian theaters: capture, consolidation, and combat preparation.

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By mid-November, the United States and allied forces kicked out the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) from Raqqa and the Assad regime retook the ISIS stronghold of Abu Kamal, signaling the decline and shift away from ISIS and back to the ongoing civil war. However, the involvement of the United States in Syria, whose “fight [has been] with ISIS” since 2014, is still limited in the form of military operations focused on defeating ISIS and defending and demining liberated areas. While the United States helped create a de-escalation zone with Jordan and Russia in southwest Syria, and pledged to restore water and power in Raqqa, it has largely procrastinated in creating a clear post-ISIS policy that goes beyond basic stabilization to address Syria’s evolving conflict.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has all-but-declared victory in Syria. He has welcomed his Syrian counterpart to Moscow and has spoken at length telephonically with President Trump. He has preserved a Syrian family enterprise steeped in criminality and left the “state” he claims to have saved firmly in the hands of Iran. To the extent this grim result is a “victory,” it is not a triumph of the Russian Federation. It is personal in nature: it is Exhibit A in Vladimir Putin’s assertion to his domestic constituents that he has restored Russia as a world power; that Russians need not dwell on economic shortfalls or chronic corruption; that the days of post-Cold War humiliation and disgrace are over.

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As the active conflict against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Syria draws to a close, Russia has announced plans to host a “Syrian People’s Congress” to begin negotiations for a postwar settlement. Initially planned to occur at Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in mid-November, the conference was rescheduled to November 18th in Sochi, Russia before being delayed yet again. Now set for December 2nd, the conference will include the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and many of its constituent groups, including Assyrians and other ethnic minorities, and will discuss a new Syrian constitution. This move comes as the latest effort by the Russians to negotiate directly and indirectly with Syrian tribes, as well as to facilitate regime-People's Protection Units (YPG) discussions. With the war increasingly unpopular at home and with its own casualties mounting, Russia is attempting to arrange a political solution amenable to the regime's opponents and lukewarm potential allies.

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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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Turkish authorities recently withdrew permits from several international humanitarian organizations working with Syrian refugees on its territory. Officials cited several reasons, some relating to security and others relating to new regulations for those organizations to continue working from Turkey.

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