SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

American airstrikes on a pro-Assad regime, Iranian-backed militia on May 18th and a Department of Defense press briefing on the following day provided clues of how the campaign to liberate eastern Syria—especially the Euphrates River Valley (which includes the cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor)—from ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) is shaping up. A key take-away from the strikes and the briefing may be summed up by Special Envoy Brett McGurk’s assurance to reporters that, post-ISIS, “nobody wants the Syrian regime to come back . . . no return of the regime.”

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BEIRUT – Russia, Iran and Turkey’s recent agreement to create “de-escalation zones” in Syria is a result of Moscow’s significant steps towards partitioning the western part of the country into zones of – sometimes foreign – influence. The Kremlin’s plan, proposed at the recent round of Astana negotiations, safeguards its own interests in Syria, while giving Russia’s allies and rivals the impression of also satisfying their respective agendas.

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The victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the constitutional referendum held on April 16 spurred great enthusiasm among the Syrian population in Turkey, who hoped that the AKP would use the victory to also help the Syrian refugees. However, the government has not taken any steps to improve the lives of Syrians. Recent news of a restaurant employee pouring hot water on a Syrian child standing outside a diner caused a major uproar. The child was rushed to the hospital and the employee was fired, but she was later released from the police station after claiming that she acted at the request of the customers.

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With Trump’s approval last week to directly arm the YPG, the United States is gearing up for the battle to capture Raqqa city from the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). To understand how the United States got to this point—arming proxy forces, troops on the ground, all the while conducting air strikes—one can ask: how did Raqqa became the self-declared capital of ISIS?

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In early April, two days before the United States attacked a Syrian airbase with cruise missiles, high-level representatives from some seventy countries convened in Brussels for a conference on the future of Syria. The issue of Syria’s post-war reconstruction featured prominently on the agenda. Its presence signaled more than a concern with the daunting challenges of rebuilding a country devastated by six years of violent conflict. Reconstruction has become the latest political battlefield in struggles over the terms of a post-war settlement for Syria, and the future of Bashar al-Assad.

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Northwestern Syria, consisting of Idlib city and the surrounding province, northern Hama and western Aleppo provinces, forms the biggest inhabited zone under the control of the Syrian opposition. It is also home to the biggest concentration of pro-Assad forces, including multi-national Shiite militias. Despite the presence of the Nusra Front and other jihadist groups in the area for several years, the balance of power there held steady until 2016, as local groups affiliated with the revolution managed to dominate other factions.

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The visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House offers an opportunity for two NATO allies to get to “Yes” on Syria. It is important that they do so. Yet as matters now stand it is doubtful that they will, and each side bears responsibility for a bilateral split that is entirely gratuitous and needlessly damaging. Yet Presidents Trump and Erdogan have it in their power to elevate their alliance over lesser considerations that divide them.

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Since establishing its headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, in 2011, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) has introduced its own brand of governance, infrastructure, and business. Now entering its sixth year in Raqqa, ISIS has largely solidified its primary means of acquiring income, the majority of which include criminal and illicit activities. Like terrorist groups before it, ISIS collects revenue from a variety of sources, including: drug and artifact smuggling, human trafficking and hostage-taking, taxation, minor cryptocurrency transactions, petty crime, and, perhaps most significantly, oil seizures and resale. 

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Listen to Rafik Hariri Center’s Senior Resident Fellow on Turkey, Aaron Stein's commentary on the decision by the Trump administration to arm the YPG and how it could affect US-Turkey relations and the military campaign in Syria. 

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The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the US-led coalition, has succeeded in encircling Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Syria. By capturing the surrounding villages and access routes to isolate the city, this strategy has contributed to weakening ISIS yet is unlikely to lead to a swift victory. Nonetheless, the heavy cost of capturing the city seems to be a secondary concern for analysts and policy makers working on Syria. Securing and governing the Arab majority city of Raqqa post-ISIS appears to be the main concern for analysts. The SDF does not seem to share the same anxiety; its plan for Raqqa is in motion despite all warnings about the negative ramifications that may be caused by it.

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