SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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As it draws closer to the eve of September 30when three years earlier Russian military intervention in Syria first beganit is telling that Russia’s influence in Syria continues to grow on the ground and internationally, particularly through various de-escalation zones, the Astana peace process, and more recently the de-militarized zone in Idlib province.

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With reports that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC)—the political wing of the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—is meeting with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for diplomatic talks, the possibility of greater Kurdish representation, or even autonomy, in Syria has found an unlikely boost. Chances that the Kurds will achieve these goals seem slim, but both sides have allegedly agreed on establishing committees to supervise the implementation of public projects and services in Kurdish areas. While this may be perceived as a step towards Kurdish autonomy, the US State Department has claimed to be committed to the territorial integrity of Syria.

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Recent remarks by National Security Advisor John Bolton suggesting that the United States will maintain a presence—presumably military—in Syria until the departure of Iranian-led forces from that ruined country have inspired a flurry of media commentary, questioning, and speculation. Only a few months ago US President Trump was calling for a near-term American evacuation of Syria. And Secretary of Defense Mattis has stressed time and again that his military mission—the one for which he has the appropriate authorities—is to defeat ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State). Has Bolton “hijacked” the Syria policy? Is Mattis along for a ride with someone else at the wheel? The view here is that there is less to the story of a Bolton-Mattis disconnect than some in the media would pretend, but that there is an interesting story of presidential policy evolution regarding Syria to be pursued.

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A Syrian regime offensive on Idlib province has been avoided for now, through a Russian-Turkish agreement. This is a much-needed reprieve for the beleaguered people of Idlib. Turkey, Russia, and the United States are likely relieved as well. There is speculation that a new US policy in Syria compelled Russia to make concessions and agree to a deal, but it is more likely a result of Russian-Turkish convergence on key issues. This alignment of interests bodes relatively well for the deal (given the dismal standards of deals in this war). Yet some of Turkey’s obligations are unrealistic and the regime remains undeterred long term, making this an inherently fragile arrangement.

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Damascus’s escalations in the rebel-held Idlib province in northwestern Syria in August and early September preempted tensions between the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While Turkey stated clearly its opposition to any action that would send additional hundreds of thousands of refugees to its borders, Syrian allies Iran and Russia adamantly supported Damascus’s mission of ousting all remaining opposition enclaves inside Syria.

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The Arab Spring forever altered the lives of Syrian-Americans. The community now refers to life before and after the start of the Syrian revolution. Initially, the infectious energy from al-Assi Square in Hama and Tahrir Square in Cairo captured hearts across the world and triggered supportive policy measures from governments. It was only a couple of years before the enthusiasm turned into heartache and horror.

By mid-2013, few US policy makers wanted to stake their professional careers on increasingly beleaguered democratic movements in Cairo, Misrata, and Homs. Senator John McCain was one of the few that did not shy away from the challenge, especially in Syria, where he emerged as a singular champion of the cause of freedom in public, behind closed doors, and even on the ground in Syria itself.

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Syria ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with arrests, kidnappings, executions, bombings, and shelling the leading causes of death for journalists in the country. While local Syrian journalists bare the brunt of the regime’s violence, many foreign journalists are targeted by the regime while reporting during battles and otherwise due to their role in shaping international coverage of the conflict. Yet one German journalist survived detainment by the regime, allowing him to keep sharing his story with the outside world and petition on behalf of those currently detained.

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The Trump administration announced last month that it would not be releasing the over $200 million in State Department funds destined for stabilization operations in Syria, which were “frozen” by President Trump earlier in March this year pending comprehensive review. Much has been made of what this move means for the future of U.S. policy in Syria, warranting deeper examination and attention to context. For reasons addressed below, neither Trump’s tweet nor headlines asserting that the United States has ended stabilization efforts for Syria paint the full picture.

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Assad's future is looking brighter these days. He has regained control over much of Syria and is amassing loyalist forces in the north in preparation for the Idlib offensive, the last opposition Syrian stronghold. The regime has also met with the Syrian Democratic Council, a Kurdish dominated organization backed by the United States, and discussing the possibility for Kurdish self-administration and the integration of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) into the Syrian army.

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Recent diplomatic escalations and a military build-up in Idlib province indicate a larger upcoming battle. The regime and Russia intend to recover the regime's sovereignty over Syria, and that has always included Idlib. After launching a successful offensive to retake Daraa and Quneitra provinces last month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced that retaking Idlib was his next priority. The Assad regime is increasing airstrikes and shelling in Idlib and its surrounding areas and recently sent troops to the area. 

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