SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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In early February, Syrian rebel forces  in southern Syria announced the launch of “the Battle of the Conquerors,” a military campaign reportedly backed by Israel against an affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in the region. This took place days prior to the February 10 confrontation between Israel and Iran, where, in a day, Israel downed an Iranian drone in Israeli airspace, Syrian anti-air systems unprecedentedly downed an Israeli F-16 aircraft, and Israel responded by striking Syrian and Iranian positions in the country, reputedly destroying some 40 percent of Syrian air defense capabilities.

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The rebel group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) regularly intervenes in Syrians’ public affairs in Idlib and imposes its authority on the education centers. Additionally, they also disrupt hospitals and other humanitarian facilities through the "Sawa'id al-Khair" or “Goodwill Corps,” affiliated with the morality police, that patrol public areas in HTS-held territory, known as the Hisba.

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In his recent testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, former United States Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, called on Congress and the US administration to consider cutting assistance to United Nations humanitarian aid programs in Syria. He followed up with an op-ed in The Hill explaining his controversial stance: for years the Assad government has impeded or entirely blocked aid to opposition-held areas, effectively causing the US government, through the UN, to subsidize the Syrian government with one-sided humanitarian aid. This legitimizes and enriches the very apparatus responsible for the genesis of the conflict in Syria and the prolonged suffering of millions. Ambassador Ford is not alone in his call for a re-evaluation of the current US approach to aid in Syria: a recent report from Faysal Itani, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Tobias Schneider, an independent international security analyst, suggests a de-centralized strategy that relies on established local partners in non-regime areas, thus bypassing the Assad regime and the ramifications of US entanglement.

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A medieval fortress overlooks the small predominantly Sunni Muslim town of Madiq Castle in Hama, Syria, situated on the Orontes River and along the fertile al-Ghab plain, under opposition control today. To the south, there lies Suqaylabiya, a predominantly Christian town under regime control. Alawis live in both locations, though mostly in regime-controlled areas. When war came to this part of Hama, clashes between regime and opposition forces ended in a truce that has largely held until today. Amid dramatic offensives in Eastern Ghouta and Afrin, the Russians issued a threat to 13 villages in the area, including Madiq Castle, demanding that residents accept their entry into the region—or else. This threat against civilians demonstrates a heightened level of complicity with the Assad regime in its attacks on noncombatants in Syria, one that should warrant an immediate response from those who wish to protect the most vulnerable in Syria.

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The bewildering complexity of a conflict in Syria about to mark its seventh anniversary causes eyes to close and heads to shake among political leaders and their constituents throughout the West. The unanswerable question—How does this end?—plunges even the best of brains into darkness and despair.

Russia and Iran—for separate but compatible reasons—have cut through the fog and confusion by holding to two objectives: keep Bashar al-Assad in power; and then demographically blackmail the West into paying for the rebuilding of Syria under the auspices of a corrupt and incompetent regime. As the West ties itself in policy knots, objecting loudly but impotently to Assad regime war crimes while trying to end (at long last) a three-plus-year war against a collection of armed rapists, pickpockets, and bank robbers in eastern Syria, Moscow and Tehran attend to business.

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Ongoing discussions regarding the now famous Syrian legislative law, Decree 66, continue and its recent expansion and approval by parliament in January 2018, is waiting to be officially implemented to the rest of the country. Decree 66, which entered into law as of September 2012, allowed the government to "redesign unauthorized or illegal housing areas" and replace them with "modern" real estate projects with quality services. The possible expansion of Decree 66 could have important consequences on the reconstruction process and the consolidation of the political and economic power of the regime through crony capitalist linked to it, while providing foreign allies with a share of the market to reward them for their assistance.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime appears encouraged by the modest growth that the economy has finally begun to display. Those tasked with resuscitating the decimated economy have had to contend with an annual GDP drop of whopping 16 percent each year since the beginning of conflict in 2011. Compare this figure to the academic literature on the impact of civil wars on national economies, which posits that annual GDP growth typically slows by 2 percent.

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For the United States and its allies, the beginning of wisdom in Syria is to accept and act upon two points.

First: so long as civilians are targeted effortlessly by a terrorist regime, nothing good can result; not for Syrians, not for their neighbors, not for the West.

Second, the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) offers a one-time, perishable opportunity to produce a visible, functioning alternative to Bashar al-Assad: precisely the thing whose absence accounts for ongoing regime support by a significant minority of Syrians.

Part one of “Syria at Seven” addresses the geopolitical importance of pushing back against the slaughter of civilians in Syria. Part two will examine making something of lasting value from the defeat of ISIS.

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If one were to write an account chronicling, analyzing, and critiquing the unintended negative consequences of American policy toward Syria since March 2011, it would be a long and depressing read. If this writer were to highlight the deadliest and most damaging of unintended consequences, it would be this: the Assad regime’s interpretation of the Obama-Trump ‘red line’ on the use of deadly chemical weapons as a green light for it to use everything else at its disposal to commit mass homicide against Syrian civilians. The inevitable if unintended horror is then routinely compounded by over-the-top rhetoric drawing attention to the abomination, plaintively pleading with the world to do something about it, and thinking that eloquent words equal substantive deeds.

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The past few weeks have produced a number of new developments in international and regional dynamics in the Syrian conflict. Opposition forces downed a Russian bomber in Idlib countryside; the United States conducted air strikes against forces loyal to the Syrian regime east of the Euphrates River; Kurdish forces took out a Turkish helicopter near Afrin, north of Aleppo; and an Israeli F-16 fighter destroyed an unmanned aircraft over the Golan. Turkey has also opened a new battlefront against the Kurds in ​​Afrin (Operation Olive Branch) and extremist groups have launched attacks against government forces. The United Nations is struggling to reach a sustainable ceasefire for Ghouta while the situation continues to deteriorate. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement (during his visit to the Russian base of Hmeimim late last year) on the withdrawal of Russian troops after what he called “the defeat of the strongest international terrorist groups,” Islamic State elements (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) are still launching attacks on regime-controlled civilian and military areas in the Deir Ezzor countryside as the Nusra Front consolidates its administrative control over Idlib in northwest Syria.

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