SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

Military Dynamics
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"The Cubs of the Caliphate” is what the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIS, or Daesh) calls its child recruits and fighters under the age of  eighteen.  An estimated 2,000 conscripted minors have undergone “Sharia” and military training in ISIS camps, learning to use light and medium weaponry, shoot, dismantle and reassemble weapons, go on raids using live ammunition, and do other tasks for for the group such as logistics, spying, guard duties, manning checkpoints, and forced labour. The organization has raised them in its way of thinking, taught them to declare other Muslims infidels, and instilled them with all of its extremist beliefs. It has used them to spy and hunt down its enemies, as well as displaying them in its videos, to send a message to its enemies: this war will last generations.

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The Turkey, Iran, and Russia-led Astana talks concluded their sixth round in the Kazakh capital yesterday, with the announcement of an initial agreement about Idlib reached between the guarantors. After multiple rounds of UN-led peace talks over the course of the conflict failed to make progress, Astana has become the incubator for the current multilateral peace initiatives. While a process directed by the three main players at Astana is unlikely to form the basis for a political solution that assuages concerns of Western governments or international bodies, it does provide a roadmap toward a reduction in violence through the 'de-escalation' proposal, first posited at the fourth round of talks last May.

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The Ahrar al-Sham movement was shattered when Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) launched a massive assault against it. The movement lost all its financial resources and many of its most strategically vital territories, including a border crossing that earned it more than $8 million a month. In the wake of the attack, its young leader Ali al-Omar quit and was replaced by Hassan Soufan from Lattakia city.

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Increasing tensions are hurting the relationship between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Arab tribal Syrian Elite Forces (SEF) at a time when both groups are cooperating in the battle for Raqqa. On August 25, seven units from the SEF, whose fighters are largely from Deir Ezzor province, defected and joined the SDF’s recently-formed Deir Ezzor Military Council—the coalition of forces that the SDF and the United States are establishing in preparation for the anticipated battle to drive the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) from Deir Ezzor. While the SEF seemingly remains part of the Raqqa operation alongside the SDF, the prospects for the two groups collaborating are bleak. Recent tensions may increase, and, given the small size of the SEF, the tribal force could find itself worse off if it gets pushed out of the battle for Deir Ezzor and loses US support.

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Russia announced earlier this month the deployment of its cutting-edge 9K333 Verba Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) to it forces in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus. According to pro-Russian outlets, the aim is for MANPADS to destroy drones used by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance dominated by the rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. This development followed a Russian brokered new ceasefire deal in the rebel held territories of Ghouta, which exclude HTS members. But a closer look at HTS capacity shows that the group is not known to have the capacity to weaponize the commercial store-bought drones that many groups in Syria use to spy on their enemies. Russia could have also used cheaper drone-buster devices capable of locking onto a drone and jamming its communications.

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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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Nothing after May 15, 2017 was as it had been before. It began with the operations to remove opposition fighters and residents from the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, in accordance with the agreement between the Syrian regime’s forces and the factions that oppose it. The neighborhood, which lies northeast of the capital, is considered the first line of defense for the Syrian opposition in Eastern Ghouta for confronting the regime’s forces. This agreement comes after two other similar agreements were made in neighborhoods near Qaboun: Tishreen and Barza. After executing these agreements, the squares of Ghouta became more exposed to the regime’s forces and their armed support groups. The most important obstacle that remained for the regime was the neighborhood of Jobar, which is on the outskirts of Damascus and is the strongest line of defense for the different factions of Ghouta. 

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The base of the Islamic State’s (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) power is in Raqqa and Mosul and is connected with each side deploying fighters across the border in mass. But while the United States and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) took back Mosul, the same cannot be said of Raqqa, which continues to deplete the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), despite support by international coalition air strikes and the recent deployment of Apache helicopters. The battle for Raqqa continues for a number of reasons, both tactical and political.

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For a fleeting moment on the 10th of August the high wall of media apathy over the war in eastern Syria and its connection to American national security interests was breached. A reporter asked an American military spokesman about the anti-terror implications of permitting Iranian-led, Shia foreign fighters and armed elements of the Assad regime into Sunni eastern Syria to take over from ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, or the Islamic State) in places like Deir Ezzor. Might ISIS eventually resurrect itself in areas taken over by bad actors like Iran and Assad? The spokesman’s response: “That is not an immediate concern of ours, but I don't know if we have looked into that more deeply. Again, I told you where our focus is now and where our efforts are concentrated.” That focus and those efforts are on the city of Raqqa and the killing of ISIS: full stop.

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Syria is one of the most water poor countries in the world. The United Nations Development Program reported that in 2009, just three hundred cubic meters per year of freshwater were available per person. This is a stark comparison to a yearly global average of at least one thousand cubic meters per individual. The war in Syria has destroyed key water infrastructure and made Syrians even more water-insecure through the destruction and bombing of pipelines, sewerage, and major reservoirs along with irrigation networks.

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