SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

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President Bashar al-Assad has traveled to Moscow in his first known trip abroad since war broke out in Syria in 2011, meeting his strongest ally Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The two leaders stressed that military operations in Syria, in which Moscow is the latest and most powerful addition, must lead to a political process. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu commented on the trip saying, "If only he could stay in Moscow longer, to give the people of Syria some relief; in fact, he should stay there so the transition can begin." Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Putin on Wednesday, expressing his concerns over the Syrian military’s recent strikes in Aleppo. Erdogan also stressed the importance of “fighting all terrorist groups,” underlining the link between the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Kurdish PYD in northern Syria, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). [AP, Reuters, 10/21/2015]

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Russian President Putin has decided that Syria is part of Russia’s near abroad, no less than Ukraine it seems, a territory where some vital national interests are at stake. He has predicted the fecklessness of Western powers well. Whether he is deploying his arsenal in Syria to fight Daesh or to bolster Assad, by moving massive military presence into Syria he has made himself the one player that counts and has put himself in a position to call the shots. He does not have a strategy to end the conflict. But he has one that he thinks will guarantee Russia’s influence in this pivotal country while the West has no strategy to confront him.

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The Syrian government's military offensive on the outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo has displaced thousands in recent days, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) says. A spokeswoman for UNOCHA said that the fighting had displaced 35,000 people from Hader and Zerbeh on the outskirts of the city in the past few days. The Aleppo offensive is targeting areas a few kilometers to the south of the city. The Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes in the air and both Iranian and Hezbollah fighters on the ground, claimed they have captured several villages. Syrian state TV said the army had captured the town of al-Sabeqiya and that the rebels had suffered heavy casualties. One Aleppo-based rebel group, the Nour al Din al Zinki Brigades, said its military commander was among the dead. [AFP, Al Jazeera, 10/20/2015]

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The intractable Syrian conflict has created the temptation to flirt with keeping in power Bashar al-Assad, the heir to the now 45-year-old al-Assad dynasty, through a political deal. But this will prove nothing more than a futile exercise of wishful thinking. The much-touted mantra of reaching a ‘political solution’ that keeps Assad in power belies the reality of a decayed governance system, ravaged by the rampant corruption that has plagued the country for decades and left the public with no choice except revolution.

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Air strikes targeting a motorcade belonging to the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) killed at least forty jihadists in central Syria over the weekend. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said unidentified warplanes hit the sixteen-vehicle convoy Saturday night, traveling from the jihadist group’s self-declared capital of Raqqa in northern Syria into the countryside of Hama province. Syrian government warplanes have bombarded areas near ISIS positions in eastern Hama province on an almost daily basis. It is unclear whether Russians, Syrians, or the US-led coalition hit the motorcade. [AFP, 10/18/2015]

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No one can look at the horrors consuming Syria today without being tempted to think that the country is finished. Some who yield to this temptation try to shoehorn their feelings into a specific historical context, often portraying Sykes-Picot as an original sin requiring expiation in the form of new national boundaries. Others tend to project current conditions indefinitely into the future, seeing Syria as a sort of Somalia or South Sudan, but stripped of anything that might be construed as positive or hopeful. Few will resist the “Syria is finished” temptation and see the possibility of a united, functioning republic featuring citizenship, consent of the governed, rule of law, pluralistic inclusivity, and, above all, political legitimacy. Although nothing remotely this positive will happen in the absence of monumental effort, to dismiss it as a valid objective is to mandate the inevitability of something far worse.

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The US-Kurdish alliance to dislodge the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) from Syria has been successful only inasmuch as US and Kurdish interests align—the United States wants local partners who will fight ISIS; the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) will oblige as long as they can reclaim their own territories. However, the YPG is unwilling to fight further south and take the fight to ISIS in its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. Recent changes in US strategy show an understanding that to finish the fight with ISIS, the United States needs to find local Arab partners who want to reclaim territory from ISIS in Raqqa. The new strategy’s success will hinge on how well the United States can find partners who prioritize fighting ISIS over fighting the Syrian regime.

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More than a quarter of a million people have been killed in Syria’s conflict since it began over four years ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said Friday. SOHR relies on networks of sources on the ground in Syria and has documented the deaths of 250,124 people, including at least 74,426 civilians. The civilian toll includes 12,517 children and 8,062 women. It puts the toll for rebel fighters at 43,752, and the number of foreign militants killed at 37,010. At least 91,678 pro-government forces, among them 52,077 regime soldiers and other allied Syrian and non-Syrian fighters including 971 Hezbollah fighters have also been killed. SOHR also documented the deaths of 3,258 people who have no identification. Its toll does not include some 30,000 people missing in Syria, among them 20,000 held in Syrian jails. [AFP, 10/16/2015]

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The people of Deir Ezzor, Syria live under both regime bombardment and Islamic State (ISIS) oppression, with neither side willing to concede this key city. Deir Ezzor is strategically important—it not only contains oil wells, but also serves as the gateway to Ramadi and Raqqa, the latter which ISIS calls its capital. Meanwhile the civilians of Deir Ezzor languish under wanton killing and oppression.  

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Syrian army pushes offensive in central Homs
Syrian government forces launched an offensive Thursday in the central province of Homs under the cover of Russian air strikes in an attempt to clear the central region of militants and open the highway between Syria's third and fourth largest cities, a military official and activists said. Hama is under government control but the highway connecting Hama and Homs is largely controlled by a patchwork of rebel groups. A military source in Syria said the Homs operation was "linked strategically" to regime operations in neighboring Hama province in recent days. "The operation will continue until it reaches its goal of securing northern Homs and severing contacts between militants in Hama and militants in Homs," the source said. [AFP, AP, 10/15/2015]

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