Analysis

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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An American president impetuously overrules his national security team with a sudden decision on Syria; one that pleases the Kremlin, undermines US policy, and damages his own credibility. Essentially unmoored to the national security apparatus over which he presides, the president—strongly influenced by the views of a foreign leader—thinks he knows best in any event. Acting without deliberation and with the thinnest of consultation, the president unintentionally but decisively rewards a murderous Syrian regime, gratifies the external supporters of that regime, and broadcasts a message of weakness and inconsistency to enemies—including Islamist extremists—of the US around the world.

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Advanced technological solutions are not limited to technologically advanced societies. Numerous examples in Syria show the use of innovative solutions for real world problems using open source technology: 3D printed prosthetics for amputees, renewable energy in cities under siege, and now aquaponics in damaged farmlands. The use of smart agriculture can help provide for people’s essential nutrition needs, especially in conflict zones, where food insecurity is prevalent and underserved farming opportunities are common. 

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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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The Trump administration announced last month that it would not be releasing the over $200 million in State Department funds destined for stabilization operations in Syria, which were “frozen” by President Trump earlier in March this year pending comprehensive review. Much has been made of what this move means for the future of U.S. policy in Syria, warranting deeper examination and attention to context. For reasons addressed below, neither Trump’s tweet nor headlines asserting that the United States has ended stabilization efforts for Syria paint the full picture.

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On July 22, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed an audience that included many members of the Iranian diaspora. The speech focused on the Iranian regime as a danger to its own people and to US interests—kleptocratic, terroristic, and totalitarian. The accusations were specific and the language was strong which could indicate a harsh new anti-Iran policy, especially given the broader context of the US administration’s belligerence toward Iran. Secretary Pompeo’s speech was followed shortly by US President Donald Trump’s social media threats directed at the Iranian leadership.

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Since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, Syrian women have been involved in all aspects of the conflict: from fighting, demonstrating and documenting war crimes to providing humanitarian relief and local politics.

Syrian women, who make up more than 50 percent of the Syrian population, are also taking on a more active role in local negotiations to end the conflict that has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more, including tens of thousands of females. However, women remain grossly underrepresented in international peace negotiations.

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In January 2018, Syria Independent Monitoring published a research report titled “Understanding Market Drivers in Syria” in which it conducted field research into the olive/olive oil and spice/herb market systems in northeastern and northwestern Syria to assess the flow of food commodities—that has been highly impacted by the conflict —in the dynamic and adaptable agricultural markets that have proven to be the most resilient. Therefore, to stimulate the market, it is recommended that more aid be targeted at the agricultural sector by facilitating market actors, creating cooperatives, and offering a variety of funding options for local farmers.

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In his recent testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, former United States Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, called on Congress and the US administration to consider cutting assistance to United Nations humanitarian aid programs in Syria. He followed up with an op-ed in The Hill explaining his controversial stance: for years the Assad government has impeded or entirely blocked aid to opposition-held areas, effectively causing the US government, through the UN, to subsidize the Syrian government with one-sided humanitarian aid. This legitimizes and enriches the very apparatus responsible for the genesis of the conflict in Syria and the prolonged suffering of millions. Ambassador Ford is not alone in his call for a re-evaluation of the current US approach to aid in Syria: a recent report from Faysal Itani, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Tobias Schneider, an independent international security analyst, suggests a de-centralized strategy that relies on established local partners in non-regime areas, thus bypassing the Assad regime and the ramifications of US entanglement.

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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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