SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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Eastern Ghouta is a suburb of Damascus. Before the war, it was an expanding part of the commuter belt where families would settle and travel the short 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) into central Damascus city for work. The original inhabitants from the area would sell their produce from their small farms. In the years since the war began, control of the area has shifted from a mix of opposition forces, and the Syrian regime besieged it in late 2013. Since November 14 2017, the regime escalated its attacks on the population of 400,000 people. Death and starvation now haunt the suburb, with an estimated 11.9 percent of children under five suffering from acute malnutrition because of the drastic lack of food supplies. Although Eastern Ghouta is so close to the capital, the disparity in the price of basic food supplies is stark. Where a kilo of salt sells for 0.50 USD on the streets of Damascus, it sells for 6.50 USD in Ghouta, and a kilo of fruit that goes for 0.50 USD in the capital is inflated to 9.00 USD in Ghouta. The citizens are not just being bombed, they are being starved.

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The unanimous vote in the UN Security Council for a well-meaning resolution demanding “a durable humanitarian pause for at least thirty consecutive days throughout Syria” may turn out, for the besieged 400,000 souls in Eastern Ghouta, to be the emptiest of gestures. It lacks an enforcement mechanism and contains a loophole all-but-inviting ongoing mass homicide. Unless Russia demonstrates the will and ability to put a choke collar on its criminal client, it will inescapably fall to the United States to exact a price for mass murder, if any is to be exacted at all.

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Four-year old Elias sits on the ground in a basement about 200 square meters with nearly 300 other people. He is playing with keys. He pretends that they are rockets falling and sprays imaginary shrapnel everywhere. His father tells me that he is a child and “his war games are already inspired by his reality.” There is no ventilation in this basement in Eastern Ghouta and black mold defiles the walls around them, creeping up to a small beam of light from the outside. “We can’t breathe. It’s like a prison,” Elias’s father says. Still, he says that unfortunately they became used to bombardment after five years. But this, he says, is different. It is intense and non-stop. The people are exhausted from fear and tension. Every time someone leaves the basement, they are not sure he will return.

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Just five days ago, in this blog, this writer assessed the possibility of Russia playing a positive role in ending Syria’s armed conflict. The following words proposed the test:

If the mass murder of Syrian civilians continues—and especially if Russian pilots participate in it—Washington and its partners may safely conclude with respect to Russian benign intentions in Syria what Gertrude Stein saw in Oakland, California: ‘There’s no there there.’ Moscow knows quite well that civilized discussions over constitutional clauses cannot take place while the constituents of one party are being terrorized, vaporized, and scattered to the winds by the warplanes and artillery of the other. Will it stop the mass murder? Can it? We shall see.”

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Deir Ezzor today is a complex variable in the Syrian equation, particularly since the opposition wrested control of the province from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2013 followed by Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) control in 2014. Deir Ezzor now contends with several forces trying to control it: Russia works to manage its conflict with the United States through Syria, legitimizing its presence through the Assad regime in cooperation with Iran and to some extent with Turkey; meanwhile the United States works to advance its agenda in the region by supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In addition to these geopolitical dynamics, on the domestic side ISIS enclaves continue to infiltrate and destabilize the area.

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Since September 2017, the agreed upon "de-escalation deal”  seemed to mark the final chapter of the Syrian civil war; entering into its eighth year. The goal of the Astana talks in 2017 was to sustain the de-escalation deal, in order to minimize violence, secure more aid, and consequently make it “safe” for Syrian refugees to return.

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Between Moscow and Washington there is agreement on the desirability of a Syria reflecting territorial integrity, stability, empowered local governance, legitimate national governance, an active civil society, and a country rebuilding its physical infrastructure and its sense of shared citizenship. Even Iran might pose no objection to such an outcome, provided Syria remains a superhighway for weaponry, training, cash, and other sorts of assistance to the leadership cadre of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Setting aside Tehran’s special relationship with Lebanese drug runners, money launderers, and assassins, is there a way for Russia and the United States together to help create a foundation for political legitimacy in Syria?

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The recent downturn in US-Turkish relations following the Turkish military’s cross-border military operation in Kurdish-held Afrin, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, should prompt a re-evaluation of American interests in Syria. Afrin is an enclave under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). The PYD is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group active in Turkey since the early 1980s. The YPG is also the main-militia in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the multi-ethnic grouping of militias that has done the bulk of the fighting against Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) east of the Euphrates River.

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A confrontation escalated along the Syrian-Israeli front the morning of February 10, opening a new destabilizing chapter to the Syrian war. A Syrian anti-aircraft battery downed an Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter aircraft that had penetrated Syrian airspace, seriously wounding the pilot. The incident immediately sparked Israeli air attacks on Syrian and Iranian rocket platforms.

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A key component of the new US policy towards Syria, as outlined by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his address at Stanford, is its focus on stabilization efforts in areas cleared of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Stabilization efforts, according to Tillerson, aim to bring about two of the five desired end states he enumerates: ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS, and facilitating conditions that would allow for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). His concession that “no party in the Syrian conflict is capable of victory or stabilizing the country via military means alone” indicates an understanding of the root cause of both the war with ISIS and the Syrian civil war: bad governance.

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