SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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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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Over recent weeks, as the Syrian regime updated its civil registries across the country, hundreds of families discovered that their relatives died in detention. Tens of thousands of Syrians were arrested in the early years of the uprising and their families continued to hold on to hope that they were still alive. Syrian human rights organizations documented a significant rise in the number of updates to the civil registry in the past two months; which is ongoing. The cause of death is not mentioned, but it is clear that detainees largely died under torture or were executed.

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In an op-ed (“In Syria, An Ugly Peace is Better than More War”) published in The New York Times on August 24, 2018, former President Jimmy Carter lays out a prescriptive course for Syria sure to be welcomed by an Assad regime preparing now to inflict state terror on civilians in Syria’s northwest. Mr. Carter rightly condemns the continuation of armed conflict and offers hope for Syrian healing and rebuilding. Yet he effectively entrusts the process itself to a criminal entity while asking Western governments to reengage it diplomatically, lift economic sanctions, and even undermine the American-led stabilization of post-ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) northeast Syria by encouraging Kurds to strike an autonomy deal with the regime—one the regime would never honor.

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On August 21, 2018 the United States, France, and the United Kingdom issued a statement to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Assad regime’s deadly chemical attack on civilians in the rebel-held Ghouta suburb of Damascus. According to the three powers, “we will respond appropriately to any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, which has had such devastating humanitarian consequences for the Syria people.” The unintended but inevitable message to Assad is clear: As your campaign of state terror and mass homicide moves to densely populated areas of northwestern Syria, we will limit ourselves to rhetorical outrage and finger-shaking provided you avoid the use of illegal chemicals.

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Since this story was first reported in April 2018, further updates have come out on Raqqa’s mass graves, highlighting the challenges of collecting bodies and identifying missing people. This is an analysis with eyewitness stories from people who have gone back to Raqqa.

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The final offensive in Idlib has been an ongoing discussion among Syria analysts for years. Idlib province contains opposition fighters, activists, and civilians displaced from Homs, Aleppo, Hama, and various parts of Damascus. A once tiny area with a 2011 population of 1.5 million now holds an estimated 2.6 million people that fled or were forced into Idlib as part of reconciliation agreements with the regime. Because of the regime-imposed consolidation of opposition fighters in Idlib, analysts speculated that Idlib would be the next great battle. Major battle fronts in opposition held areas—namely Homs, Aleppo, and Eastern Ghouta, among others—have succumbed to the regime’s brutal war tactics of bombardment and siege. Idlib now remains the last major opposition territory for the regime to control, but it is not without its complications.

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The short answer is “No.” A family and an entourage that placed itself at the disposal of Iran while burning much of Syria to the ground will not prevail, provided the United States and its partners begin to push back. Yet termites are at work, and the fulfillment of this proviso is far from certain.

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Moscow’s sudden interest in expediting the return of Syrian refugees to their homes is not prompted by humanitarian concerns. Neither is it motivated by a desire to promote political conditions inside Syria that would encourage people to return to the country from which they fled. It is about pressuring the West into fixing a country broken by Russia, Iran, and their client Assad regime. It is a kinder, gentler form of blackmail: either lavish reconstruction funding on the regime, or refugees won’t go home; indeed, there may be more of them arriving on your doorstep.

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Eight years and many conferences into the Syria conflict, Syrian women still struggle to have their voices heard in decision making forums that directly impact them as citizens, and as political, economic, and civil society actors. Syrian women present at the western male-dominated EU-UN conference, Supporting Syria and the Region—known as Brussels II—in April 2018, explicitly spoke to the political processes that failed to include them, and to an aid industry that did not address their needs, including in protection from violence. 

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