SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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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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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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