Syria

In a departure from longstanding US policy, US President Donald J. Trump on March 21 tweeted that it was time the United States recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in 1967.


While there is perhaps more than a touch of politics behind the timing of the tweet—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, is up for re-election on April 9—an actual shift in US policy on this sensitive issue could have serious consequences.

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US President Donald J. Trump’s announcement that ISIS (ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh) “will be gone by tonight” is welcome news.  An important battle in Syria has been won.  But the war will continue.  It will rage throughout the Muslim world until political legitimacy fills vacuums of governance that Islamist extremists will continue to contest; legitimacy that can only come about through the voluntary consent of the governed.  This is a war for the hearts and minds of Sunni Muslims; not buildings and trackless desert.

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The resignation letter of Secretary of Defense James Mattis should be required reading for current and future senior officials of the US executive branch. Without so much as a hint of insubordination or disrespect for the commander-in-chief, he has made it clear that his 40+ years of service to country have instilled within him values not compatible with those of President Donald J. Trump.  Consistent with his record of service, he has chosen the path of honorable exit.  In this administration he will likely be alone.

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There is strategic logic, political logic, and then there is Donald Trump logic.

On Syria, political, military, and strategic logic was conveyed to US President Donald J. Trump by his secretary of defense and other advisers, very likely in the State Department and intelligence agencies, but certainly in Congress, where Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have strongly advised against a hasty withdrawal of US troops from Syria.  Among other things, Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria without a thought-through discussion and coordination with NATO allies, who have supported the war on ISIS, has angered senior advisers in and out of the administration.  Trump’s logic, by all indications, is mainly focused on domestic politics.

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If true, reports that US President Donald J. Trump is ordering the prompt withdrawal of US military forces from eastern Syria could upend his administration’s Syria strategy and hand a thoroughly unearned victory to Iran, Russia, and the Assad regime. The White House has just released the following statement:

“Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate. These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign. We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign. The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support, and any means of infiltrating our borders.”

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Media reports suggest that the Trump administration has begun planning the removal US armed forces from northeastern Syria, as US President Donald Trump believes “we have defeated ISIS in Syria.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on December 19, "five years ago today, ISIS was very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate...We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign. The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary." According to Department of Defense sources, the United States has already informed some of its partners of its intention to remove its troops.

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‘We do not have permanent relationships with substate entities,’ says James Jeffrey

The eventual goal of the mainly-Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) should be “to become part of the fabric of a changed Syrian society,” US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey said at the Atlantic Council in Washington on December 17. Distancing the United States from the prospect of supporting SDF or other Kurdish groups as autonomous from a future Syrian government, Jeffrey said “we do not have permanent relationships with substate entities. That is not the policy of this administration and has not been the policy of other administrations.”

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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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