SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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Educational administrators in Kurdish controlled areas of northern Syria believe education and literacy improves people’s lives and helps to build a better future. The Kurds do not believe that the development of education should be dependent on the current Syrian government’s curricula despite the central government’s formal legal authority in this realm to date.

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With the assistance of Yale Professor Oona A. Hathaway, Senator Cory A. Booker (Democrat of New Jersey) has published an op-ed in The New York Times (“A Syria Plan that Breaks the Law”) accusing the Trump administration of wishing to wage war illegally in Syria, in a manner violating both the American Constitution and international law. Although the Senator and his academic co-author make cogent points about the central role of Congress in declaring war and authorizing military operations, they risk inadvertently building a legal justification for consigning the people of eastern Syria to the ministrations of a homicidal regime in Damascus.

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Following news that Turkish forces and their Syrian opposition allies' intend to enter Afrin and Manbij, both under the control of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Turkey now faces its greatest challenge in Syria to date. This challenge comes at a time when the United States, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime have divided up control of the strategically important parts of Syria, most notably the Syrian desert which connects all the country's provinces as well as being home to its mineral wealth. Perhaps more importantly, this coalition also fought together to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).

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The decision of Turkey to mount air and ground operations in the Afrin district of northwestern Syria entails dangers that transcend even the potentially dire consequences for civilians of yet another Syrian combat zone swallowing lives and property. Despite the flamboyant anti-Turkish threats of its Syrian client, Russia has gingerly stepped aside in this corner of Aleppo Province, moving its ground forces and vacating the airspace to accommodate the Turkish operation. For Russian President, Vladimir Putin, nothing—not even the full political ascendancy of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad—would top Turkey and the United States coming to military blows over Syria.

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On January 18, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered some long-awaited clarity on US policy in post-ISIS Syria. As recently as a few weeks ago some observers (including this author) did not believe the United States would stay in Syria at all after defeating the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). Secretary Tillerson presented an ambitious US policy to be advanced by an indefinite US military deployment in areas of Syria taken from ISIS, supporting tens of thousands of local militia fighters dominated by its Kurdish partners against ISIS, the PYD.

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The first substantial evidence of a US plan for stabilization in post-ISIS Syria was revealed this week—and it didn’t go well. On Sunday, spokesmen from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the US-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) announced intentions to build a “border security” force of around 30,000 troops; made up primarily of veteran SDF fighters. The plan illuminates Turkey’s summoning of the US charge d’affaires last week: Turkey is enraged by the proposal, and Erdogan vowed on Monday to “drown this army of terror before it is born.” SDF fighters, who would make up about half of the border force, are dominated by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and therefore terrorists.

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In a country that has seen war, destruction, and widespread war crimes committed by the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), the city of Raqqa is witnessing relative calm and a new rebirth with the slow return of its people. Local and foreign institutions intervened to focus on reconstruction and dispatching task forces to remove land mines planted by ISIS. Hundreds of people, mostly women and children, have benefitted from these efforts.

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Stanford University “Remarks on the Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria” depict a major improvement in the American approach to the crisis in Syria, one consistent in many respects with recommendations offered here over the past five years. Officially gone is President Barack Obama’s disastrously erroneous view—opposed by many officials in his administration—that Iran would have to be appeased in Syria to obtain Tehran’s signature to a nuclear deal. In its place is something immeasurably better, but something requiring sustained heavy lifting by an undermanned diplomatic team and several upgrades in some critical areas.

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One of the most heavily-discussed groupings of foreign fighters in Syria are those from Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Coming from a region embroiled in two decades of insurgency against the Russian army, these fighters have long been highly touted for their experience and skill. While ultimately small in number, they have played an outsized role in the conflict, participating in major jihadist offensives in the country for half a decade.

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This past December marks one year since Aleppo fell back into regime control following six years of fighting and a bloody aerial bombing campaign. This put an end to the most violent theatre of war in Syria; marked by the departure of those expelled from Aleppo on the last convoy on December 22 to the western countryside. Russia proposed to various factions of the opposition that all fighters and civilians in areas under their control be evacuated to Idlib under Turkish supervision. 

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