SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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By mid-November, the United States and allied forces kicked out the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) from Raqqa and the Assad regime retook the ISIS stronghold of Abu Kamal, signaling the decline and shift away from ISIS and back to the ongoing civil war. However, the involvement of the United States in Syria, whose “fight [has been] with ISIS” since 2014, is still limited in the form of military operations focused on defeating ISIS and defending and demining liberated areas. While the United States helped create a de-escalation zone with Jordan and Russia in southwest Syria, and pledged to restore water and power in Raqqa, it has largely procrastinated in creating a clear post-ISIS policy that goes beyond basic stabilization to address Syria’s evolving conflict.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has all-but-declared victory in Syria. He has welcomed his Syrian counterpart to Moscow and has spoken at length telephonically with President Trump. He has preserved a Syrian family enterprise steeped in criminality and left the “state” he claims to have saved firmly in the hands of Iran. To the extent this grim result is a “victory,” it is not a triumph of the Russian Federation. It is personal in nature: it is Exhibit A in Vladimir Putin’s assertion to his domestic constituents that he has restored Russia as a world power; that Russians need not dwell on economic shortfalls or chronic corruption; that the days of post-Cold War humiliation and disgrace are over.

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As the active conflict against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Syria draws to a close, Russia has announced plans to host a “Syrian People’s Congress” to begin negotiations for a postwar settlement. Initially planned to occur at Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in mid-November, the conference was rescheduled to November 18th in Sochi, Russia before being delayed yet again. Now set for December 2nd, the conference will include the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and many of its constituent groups, including Assyrians and other ethnic minorities, and will discuss a new Syrian constitution. This move comes as the latest effort by the Russians to negotiate directly and indirectly with Syrian tribes, as well as to facilitate regime-People's Protection Units (YPG) discussions. With the war increasingly unpopular at home and with its own casualties mounting, Russia is attempting to arrange a political solution amenable to the regime's opponents and lukewarm potential allies.

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Readers of SyriaSource are all too familiar with an argument advanced in these pages for well-over two years: ISIS (Daesh, ISIL, Islamic State) should be neutralized quickly in eastern Syria; an American-led, professional ground force coalition-of-the-willing should be assembled to preempt ISIS terror operations in Turkey and Western Europe and minimize Syrian civilian casualties in complex urban battle terrain; and that a post-combat stabilization plan should be drafted and implemented to keep ISIS dead, one drawing on pre-ISIS local councils and the anti-Assad Syrian opposition. The idea was to parlay the defeat of ISIS into a stable, protected eastern Syria where humanitarian aid could be expedited and reconstruction begun, and to exclude the cause of terrorism and state failure in Syria—the Assad regime—from the area.

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Turkish authorities recently withdrew permits from several international humanitarian organizations working with Syrian refugees on its territory. Officials cited several reasons, some relating to security and others relating to new regulations for those organizations to continue working from Turkey.

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The Turkish intervention in Idlib has done well so far, aided by soft coordination with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) as Turkish battalions advance into the province and neighboring western Aleppo. It marks a defining phase of the various transitions of Jabhat al-Nusra; the former al-Qaeda affiliate that forms the backbone of the HTS coalition. The intervention will have a major impact on the future of the alliance. Its chief leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, faces a far more daunting challenge than he did when he announced he was breaking ties with al-Qaeda and changing Nusra’s name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, creating the biggest division within the group since it announced not belonging to the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).

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The situation in the Rukban camp for internally displaced persons near the border with Jordan is rapidly deteriorating. International humanitarian groups are close to being overwhelmed, despite local NGOs and rebel groups trying to help out as well. Tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) stranded in an informal desert camp between Jordan and Syria have been cut off from aid for months. So far, there are no indications that assistance is on the way.

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Iraqi Kurds have lost control over the disputed city of Kirkuk after Iraqi central government forces and Iranian-backed militias retook the territory this October. This happened not only after the Iraqi Kurds’ controversial referendum for independence, but also after the two sides finished joint operations against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Mosul. The United States, the Kurds’ main backer, did not step in to support their allies, leaving the Kurds questioning Washington’s commitment.

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The race to Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria is accelerating. Syrian regime and allied forces, supported by Russia, are attempting to seize the strategically vital city by advancing from the north along the Euphrates valley. Meanwhile, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are advancing in an effort to take as much of the city as possible in operation code-named Jazeera Storm. The coming days therefore present the possibility of US and Russian-backed forces clashing in Deir Ezzor.

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Syria’s situation—the massive amount of discussion, fragmented governance, and ongoing fighting—are not going to disappear anytime soon, and education models in Syria need to better adapt to it to address the growing learning gap. Although many organizations have programs to address education gaps for Syrian students, their approaches—focusing on access over quality, building traditional schools, supporting underground schools—are not the only way to keep Syrian students learning. These approaches sweep the following under the rug: the reality of politicized curricula by state and non-state actors, dangers the journey to and presence in schools pose, as well as the psychological impact of learning under threat, specifically in areas out of government control vulnerable to shelling and airstrikes. While education overhaul in Syria goes hand in hand with a seemingly-distant political solution, new models can keep communities connected to learning while minimizing exposure to threats in the current environment.

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