SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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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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Official statement presented to the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, on the hearing for "Syria: Which Way Forward?"

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The city of Afrin is at the forefront of events in Syria. Armed opposition forces and the Turkish army have launched Operation Olive Branch in an attempt to remove the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from the Turkish border and impede the establishment of an independent Kurdish enclave in the north of the country.

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Syrian regime forces captured significant parts of the countryside east of Idlib, and the Abu Duhur military airport, exposing the route between Aleppo and Hama. In doing so the regime has been able to isolate the city of Idlib from its eastern countryside, and from the southern Aleppo countryside. In response, the Syrian opposition and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) regained a number of areas, yet clashes are still ongoing. Fighting has occurred regardless of the fact that Idlib falls under the fourth de-escalation zone as denoted in the 'De-escalation Agreement' that was signed by Turkey, Iran, and Russia in Astana.

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Volunteer teams are desperately attempting to preserve what remains of the archaeological heritage of Idlib, a city in north-western Syria. Most of these efforts have been unsuccessful because most of the city is under the control of jihadists. Any area with archaeological artifacts is at risk of looting by jihadist organizations known to operate in Idlib, such as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). A member from a local volunteer confirmed that they had only been able to preserve a few small objects that HTS had overlooked; unlike the grand statues and old paintings. Some HTS fighters work day and night in special workshops excavating the ancient quarters of Idlib in search of valuables.

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