Syria

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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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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