Syria

In the remote Rukban desert along the Syrian-Jordanian border, there is a makeshift settlement that houses approximately 50,000 Syrian refugees. The settlement is located inside a 20-square-mile deconfliction zone, north of the sand berm where the Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi borders meet; it is also south of the nearby US-led coalition base in al-Tanf. Starting in 2011, civilians in southern Syria fled the conflict to nearby Lebanon and Jordan. This was supposed to be a temporary refuge, as they expected the fighting to soon die down.

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I first met Raed Fares in November 2015 when he spoke at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. I had learned about his work as an activist however much earlier in the Syrian conflict, especially his role in organizing local sit-ins in his northern Syrian town of Kafr Nabl. Locals were regularly photographed holding banners bearing witty English slogans to raise awareness of regime and extremist violence and shame the international community into taking action (that the slogans were often written in broken English somehow made them more endearing). Raed also founded Radio Fresh, whose broadcasts frequently criticized the local al-Qaeda derivative Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) who likely murdered Raed five days ago.

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For days I’ve been trying and failing to write something about the violent and unjust passing of a good man—Raed Fares—and his colleague, Hammoud al-Jneid. In nearly eight years of witnessing Syria being eaten alive by a rapacious regime and by criminal sectarian “rebels” supported by regional states, nothing has been more demoralizing and deflating than these murders. Those who admired Raed Fares and saw in him the future of Syria now must choose: Permit all hope and effort for a successful, peaceful revolution to follow him and his colleague into the grave; or allow the example of Raed Fares to inspire renewed and unceasing work to bring about the Syria for which he gave his life.

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Few major implementors currently exist in Syria developing and executing projects to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure ranging from roads, buildings, healthcare system, agriculture and irrigation systems, to the electrical grid. Though a number of reasons limit the existence of project implementors, the primary reason is the ongoing conflict and lack of stability. A lack of infrastructure is also a major barrier for entry for many implementors whose aid deliveries depend on secure roads and bridges. Despite all this, there is a major player on the ground that has implemented projects across non-government controlled parts of Syria throughout the conflict amid all the uncertainty and chaos and that is the Syria Recovery Trust Fund (SRTF).

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Turkey was once the main sponsor of the Syrian opposition’s effort to topple Bashar al Assad. However, beginning in late 2016, Turkish policy has shifted following the Russian defeat of Turkish backed proxies in Aleppo. This change in policy sparked a reassessment of Turkish strategy away from the overthrow of the regime and towards close cooperation with Russia and competition with the United States. Beginning in the summer of 2016, Ankara settled on the pursuit of four closely interrelated goals in Syria: blocking westward expansion of the American backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); frustrating American military operations east of the Euphrates River; working through Russia to ensure that Syria remains a unitary state after the conflict ends; resettling displaced people in Turkish controlled territory in northern Syria.

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Over the summer the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration (AA) focused on strengthening its hand in talks with the Syrian government, in an attempt to win concessions on self-rule before a potential withdrawal of US support. Among other escalatory actions, the AA inserted itself into service provision initiatives previously left to the state, and arrested dozens of candidates for local elections organized by Damascus. 

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Below are remarks Ambassador Frederic C. Hof gave yesterday at the World Affairs Council of Greater Reading in Pennsylvannia regarding the continued importance of Syria policy and the role of the United States in the ongoing conflict.

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As the Syrian government and its allies extend control over a growing portion of Syria, they are accelerating demands for refugees to return to the country.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has a political interest in refugees coming back. The government wants international legitimacy, and significant returns would signal that it has won refugees’ confidence in its ability to protect them and rebuild the country.

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When pro-government forces recaptured the southwestern rebel stronghold of Daraa province in July, Muhammad Sabsabi’s colleagues tried to bury their pasts.

Some tried to flee. Many simply went underground.

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A summit held in Istanbul on Saturday failed to produce any breakthroughs in the core disagreements over the Syrian conflict. It did however have notable geopolitical implications that affect each of the four attendees Russia, Germany, and France, and Turkey – two of whom are new to an effort created to manage Russia and Turkish interests in Syria. Significantly, the United States took no part in the meeting despite the presence of two major European allies and NATO partner, Turkey.

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