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Ed Webb

Syria Comment » Archives » "Bush White House Wanted to Destroy the Syrian Sta... - 0 views

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Ed Webb

Accountability for Islamic State Fighters: What Are the Options? - Lawfare - 1 views

  • Trump’s sudden announcement that the U.S. would withdraw forces from along the Syria-Turkey border has already had dramatic consequences. Turkish armed forces launched an invasion into northern Syria dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” in response to which the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the predominantly Kurdish military backed by the U.S.-led coalition, has warned that it will be forced to withdraw some of its guards from the Islamic State detention centers and camps to deal with the invasion
  • both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are taking advantage of the Turkish invasion to launch their own attacks within Syria: On Oct. 9, the Islamic State attacked an SDF position in Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State, and Assad’s Russian-backed forces moved further into Manbij and Idlib. The same day, the U.S. reportedly helped move some of the “most dangerous” Islamic State detainees out of SDF custody but subsequently ordered a halt to any further operations against the Islamic State
  • By some estimates, the SDF is currently holding more than 10,000 Islamic State fighters—including at least 8,000 Iraqis and Syrians and 2,000 foreign fighters—in overflowing temporary detention centers in northeastern Syria. Thousands of family members of detainees are being held in camps for internally displaced persons in the same region
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  • The SDF has consistently asserted that it has limited capabilities to guard these facilities and has continually called for support from the coalition countries. Even before Trump’s announcement on Sunday, the head of the Kurdish forces expressed concern that the camp was at risk of falling under the control of the Islamic State. Despite the general consensus that the status quo was not sustainable, coalition countries have done little to address the problem and there has been no agreement on how to handle these fighters and their families.
  • Iraq reportedly intends to execute at least seven French nationals who were convicted under charges of being members of the Islamic State. There has been little clarity about exactly how these French citizens who had been fighting in Syria ended up in Iraqi detention centers, but experts suspect that they were transferred to Iraq by the SDF at the request of the French government after the French refused to allow them to return home
  • The situation may depend on who—among the SDF, Turkey, Syria and Russia—gains control of the northeastern territory. But if the security surrounding the detainees deteriorates, the Islamic State will likely exploit the situation and create a further opportunity for its ongoing resurgence
  • Although national courts in a conflict region usually provide the most obvious mechanism for criminal proceedings, neither Iraq nor the Kurds controlling territory in Syria have courts that are capable of achieving a just and fair form of accountability
  • a small subset of European governments—along with the SDF—have been calling for some sort of tribunal to deal with the detainees
  • Some see local prosecutions in Syria and Iraq as unrealistic options for foreign fighters, arguing instead for active repatriation followed by possible prosecution in the fighters’ home countries. This is also the option being urged by the U.S. government. Some practitioners even argue that European countries have an obligation to bring foreign fighters to justice under certain international legal instruments (specifically under U.N. Security Council resolutions 2178 [2014] and 2396 [2017]).
  • Countries outside of western Europe, including Kosovo, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have demonstrated the most initiative in repatriating their nationals. Kosovo, the country that had the highest number of its citizens per capita leave to join the caliphate, has made particularly notable repatriation efforts. In April, for example, the Balkan republic brought back 32 women, 74 children, and four men from SDF custody in Syria. The male returnees were immediately placed in detention, pending prosecution, while the women and children were allowed to return home.
  • some western European examples of the successful handling of returned foreign fighters:
  • European Union has also recently set up a counterterrorism register meant to facilitate prosecutions of returning foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. The database is intended to be a repository for information from all EU countries about ongoing investigations and prosecutions of terrorist suspects who fought in Iraq and Syria so that all 28 member states have access to the same data and evidence
  • a growing number of calls for the establishment of some sort of ad hoc international criminal tribunal to deal with Islamic State fighters. Leaders from relevant U.N. agencies, Sweden, the Netherlands and the SDF have raised the idea of an international tribunal located in the region to deal with the detainees
  • President Trump maintains that Turkey will take control of the Islamic State prisoners, but it is unclear whether any Turkish officials agreed to assume this responsibility and the detainees are located further inside Syria than Turkey is expected to occupy during the current phase of their offensive. Even if the Turkish forces did start to police the camps, there is concern that Turkey’s security would be inadequate given the country’s past failures to crack down on and contain Islamic State cells within its own borders.
  • Russian-backed Syrian forces may end up in control of the detainees since the U.S. withdrawal from Syria has created an opening for Assad to strike a deal with the SDF. Given Assad’s history of putting thousands of Syrians into “filthy dungeons” to be “tortured and killed,” the Islamic State detainees would potentially be subjected to severe conditions with no prospect of a fair trial
Ed Webb

What Can We Learn from the Escalating Israeli Raids in Syria? - Lawfare - 0 views

  • Eyal Tsir Cohen is a visiting fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. Tsir is currently on leave from the Israeli prime minister’s office, where he has served for the last 30 years in various senior positions. His career has focused on security and intelligence issues, and shaping policies and strategies on global terrorism.
  • While Israel has reportedly carried out thousands of strikes in Syria and neighboring Iraq in recent years, the frequency, intensity, and toll of these recent attacks are unprecedented.
  • Israel has come to see that Iran is not forsaking its project in Syria, and further may be pursuing more sophisticated means of threatening Israel’s northern border. This week’s report that Iran is moving missiles into Iraq only reinforces this perception
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  • To diminish Iranian capabilities being shipped to Hezbollah and other Iranian militias working to open a low-intensity military front threatening Israel’s northern border; To maintain Israel’s freedom of action and air supremacy in its neighborhood and the Middle East in general by minimizing Syrian military capabilities, more specifically anti-aircraft missile sites and their support systems; and To send a message of deterrence to three main actors in the region: Assad’s regime, Iran and its emissaries, and Russia.
  • air raids weaken the Syrian army’s capabilities; distract Assad’s capabilities from coping with opposition forces, ISIS, and al-Qaida in the north and east of Syria; and keep this war-ridden country in grave economic instability.
  • Israel also reportedly targeted significant air defense capabilities, especially surface-to-air missiles, that threaten Israel’s strategic dominance over Lebanese and Syrian airspace
  • Israel hopes its strikes will push Tehran to abandon its project in Syria. But Iran has shown no willingness so far to consider this. Instead, it has simply worked to make its arms shipments more difficult to detect. The search-and-destroy campaign demands excellent intelligence capabilities on Israel’s part to uncover clandestine shipments sent by air or land to Syria through Iraq. Fine-grained intelligence is also necessary to allow the airstrike to be effective and to minimize collateral damage and casualties. This poses a great challenge to Israel because, in time, Iran and its Syrian counterparts can find new, creative ways to mask their supply chain to Syria and avoid detection
  • While previous raids mostly damaged buildings and infrastructure, Israel probably expected this raid to inflict Iranian casualties, thus raising the stakes of the conflict.
  • As Iran faces unrest at home—and amid major popular demonstrations in Iraq—Israel is willing to match or even exceed Iran’s aggressive moves. For Khamenei, the prospect of large investments repeatedly being destroyed in Syria may be a difficult one, politically, as his domestic economy plummets. The contrast between these recent raids, which reportedly killed 16 Iranians, and the relative lack of an Iranian reaction highlights that it is difficult for Iran to respond in kind to Israeli escalations.
  • as Israel works to diminish the Syrian state’s military capabilities, it risks merely pushing the Assad regime deeper into its dependency on Iran
  • while Russia has been fast to criticize Israel for its strikes in Syria, it may quietly prefer to see Israel doing the dirty work of lessening Iranian power there. While they are partners in upholding the Assad regime, in some ways the Russians and Iranians are competitors in Syria, especially when looking toward state-rebuilding. Should Israeli strikes push the Iranians to play less of a role, the Russians would be the first to fill the void they would leave. Further, Israeli strikes in Syrian military facilities create business opportunities for the Russian arms industry. The Syrian regime will need to replace its destroyed weapons systems, and Russian manufacturers stand ready to supply new ones. Russia, while publicly opposed to Israeli strikes, might actually benefit from a laissez-faire policy toward these attacks.
  • Israeli raids in November sent a clear message to Moscow that unless the Iranian element is taken out of the equation, Syria will remain an unstable battleground. The raids are also a reminder of Russia’s commitment to Israel to keep the Iranian Quds Forces outside of the 50-mile radius from Israel’s border. These raids underscore that, if the Russians cannot uphold their side of this understanding, then Israel will wreak havoc in Syria. Putin seeks a political resolution and stability in Syria, and the Russians understand that Syria has no prospect of recovery from its civil war amid the constant friction between Israel and Iran.
  • When the fight between Iran and Israel in Syria moves closer to the Iraqi border, Israeli airstrikes become riskier, Iranian intelligence capabilities become stronger, and Iran’s ability to deny responsibility for missile launches becomes greater.
  • Iran cannot really be deterred by threats to the integrity of the Syrian state because it views the Assad regime only as a useful path by which it can increase its regional power
  • Given the gaps in its strategic messaging, Israeli deterrence, in and of itself, will likely not produce the total Iranian withdrawal for which Israel is hoping. The pressures Iran faces by demonstrations at home and in Iraq are perhaps the likelier trigger for Tehran to reconsider its strategy
Ed Webb

The Fruits of Iran's Victory in Syria - Lawfare - 0 views

  • while Tehran was gaining prominence on the battlefield and in international fora aimed at addressing the Syrian crisis, Iran began to pay greater costs for its involvement there. Domestically, the Iranian populace and regime insiders alike were torn on their country’s presence in Syria. They believed containing ISIS was critical, but also saw Assad as a horrifying figure whose forces were leaving hundreds of thousands displaced, wounded, and killed. The Guards and Artesh were beginning to see their death tolls rise, with the number of killed troops repatriated surpassing 1,000 by 2016. And as the country was struggling to reap the economic benefits of the 2015 nuclear deal and subsequent sanctions relief, it was also dedicating millions of dollars to supplying Assad and his forces with funds, advisors, weapons, and other equipment. According to reporting by Haaretz, “Iranian state-owned banks set up credit lines for the Syrian government of $3.6 billion in 2013 and $1 billion in 2015 to let the regime buy oil and other goods from Iran.” And this amount doesn’t include Iranian-supplied arms to various groups in the region
  • The Islamic Republic did not anticipate when it became involved in Syria that the conflict would last seven years and that Assad would preserve his tenure. Iran may have signaled in the middle of the war that it would have been willing to drop Assad for another friendly presence in Damascus, but that view changed as it became clear that the international community, chiefly the United States and its European allies, were at least tacitly willing to live with Assad.
  • Iran’s military has gained significant battlefield experience, with its armed forces becoming much more cohesive. And this experience isn’t limited to Iranian troops, but also the militias Iran has deployed from other parts of the region, including approximately 14,000 Fatemiyoun and 5,000 Zeynabiyoun
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  • Tehran’s been able to project power beyond its means through its strategic deployment of militias in Syria
  • increased its strategic depth and preserved its lifeline to its chief non-state ally. Hezbollah’s ability to preserve its stronghold in Lebanon and to thrive is vital to the Islamic Republic because of the ways it increases Iran’s strategic depth, provides intelligence and counterintelligence benefits, and assists with Iran’s power projection, including by providing a deterrent against the United States and Israel
  • Iran has been able to contain ISIS in Syria, allowing it to minimize the threat posed by the group against its own territory and population
  • the Revolutionary Guards will continue to be involved in the security sector in Syria and have already made agreements with Assad. Iran is now involved in rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure, including in the energy sector. And the Guards are a natural candidate for these efforts, given their presence in Syria and experience in the Iranian oil and gas sectors. At home the Iranian government is trying to scale back the Guards’ economic activities, so they may see investment abroad as a natural next step. There have also been talks of joint transportation projects between Damascus and Tehran, which would facilitate bilateral trade. Iran hopes to become a key exporter of goods to Syria. Iranians are also eyeing the public health and education sectors as possible arenas for future involvement. Lastly, the Islamic Republic hopes to become a key arms supplier in the region and Syria is a natural market for its weapons and defense equipment
Ed Webb

Graham and Fox News expert showed Trump a map to change his mind about Syria withdrawal - 0 views

  • Retired Gen. Jack Keane, a Fox News analyst, first walked the president through a map showing Syria, Turkey and Iraq on Oct. 8, pointing out the locations of oil fields in northern Syria that have been under the control of the United States and its Kurdish allies, two people familiar with the discussion said. That oil, they said Keane explained, would fall into Iran's hands if Trump withdrew all U.S. troops from the country.
  • Keane went through the same exercise with Trump again Oct. 14, this time with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at his side
  • Keane displayed a map showing that almost three quarters of Syria's oil fields are in the parts of the country where U.S. troops are deployed, the people familiar with the meeting said. They said that Graham and Keane told the president that Iran is preparing to move toward the oil fields and could seize the air space above them once the U.S. leaves.
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  • The president seemed "resigned" to leaving a small number of American troops in northern Syria to keep control of the oil, according to a person who was present.
  • The episodes shed light on how the latest twist in Trump's orders of a Syria withdrawal — that the U.S. needs troops there to "secure the oil" — emerged
  • Trump's comments in recent days about the need for U.S. troops to secure oil fields in Syria have raised questions about where the idea came from and fueled widespread confusion about what the president's mission is for American forces deployed there
  • On Oct. 7, the day before Keane, whom Trump had considered to be his defense secretary, first came to the White House to talk to him about Syria, he appeared on Fox News and described the president's decision on Syria as a "strategic blunder." His in-person presentation to Trump on Oct. 8 seemed to leave an impression on the president
  • the focus is on presenting options to Trump that address how to maintain the counter-ISIS operation after a U.S. withdrawal from northeast Syria, shore up defenses in Iraq and deny oil revenues to the Islamic State militant group and other adversaries.
  • In the first two years of the administration, current and former officials said Trump so frequently threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and even the Korean Peninsula that some of his advisers developed a system for talking him down from taking such steps. The effort included showing him visual materials like maps to walk through the reasons why an abrupt withdrawal would be detrimental to U.S. interests,
  • On Afghanistan, the presentation to Trump included a map of the country's rare earth minerals, largely used in electronic devices,
  • The focus on Iran in trying to convince Trump to keep a contingent of U.S. troops in northern Syria — rather than on potential action by Russia, which officials say is far more capable and likely to make moves to harness the oil — is in part because the president has appeared more likely to be persuaded by proposals aimed at countering Iran than Russia
  • while the emphasis on oil in Syria is intended to convince the president that the U.S. military presence is valuable, securing the oil fields is not a military strategy. U.S. troops will not actually be guarding the oil fields
  • U.S. military officials acknowledged Monday that they don't know if troops in Syria are actually going to stay or for how long.
  • This month wasn't the first time Trump has been shown a map detailing economic assets to convince him not to follow through on ordering U.S. troops home, officials said.
  • Esper told reporters that a small contingent of U.S. troops currently working with Kurdish allies to secure the oil fields will only remain in the country until the full withdrawal of U.S. forces is complete in a matter of weeks
Ed Webb

A New Path For Syria's Kurds - War on the Rocks - 0 views

  • in a dramatic reversal in its foreign policy, Ankara is now looking to normalize relations with Damascus
  • Ankara has long supported the opposition and anti-regime forces in Syria and controls a huge chunk of Syrian territory in the north. For the United States and European powers, Turkish-Syrian normalization would represent a dramatic shift, fundamentally altering the strategic calculus in Syria and directly threatening the position of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds — given that both Ankara and Damascus want to see their territorial control and autonomous governing curtailed or brought under the auspices of a centralized Syrian government. 
  • The right approach is not arming Kurds or offering them the false promise of U.S. military backing to counter a Syrian-Turkish front but supporting them politically to secure a modus vivendi with the governments in Ankara and Damascus. To survive, Kurds need to reach an agreement with both. This will necessitate supporting the Kurds in their political dialogue with Damascus and pushing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — the U.S.- and Turkish-designated terrorist group — to declare a ceasefire inside Turkey ahead of the June 2023 elections, easing the pressure on Syrian Kurds. This could open up the possibility of a political softening on the Turkish-Kurdish front, remove a major irritant in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, and preserve some Western influence inside Syria. 
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  • the Turkish president has formed an alliance with ultra-nationalists to secure his power — and the continuation of the war against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and its Syrian offshoot, the Syrian Democratic Forces, has served as a lubricant in this partnership
  • Erdogan is no doubt calculating that an agreement with Damascus would secure a greenlight from Russia to launch a new incursion or coordinated action with Damascus against the Kurds ahead of the June 2023 elections, helping rally Turkish voters around the flag
  • a rapprochement with Syria helps Turkey manage its relationship with Moscow at a time when Erdogan needs Russia’s consent for action in Syria and money to help prop up the country’s collapsing economy. Turkey and Russia have a complicated relationship which simultaneously involves competition and cooperation, often at the expense of Western influence in Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus
  • the fragile peace in the northeast, where an estimated 900 U.S. troops are stationed alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces
  • Syria has also become an arena of great power projection for Russia and a site of proxy warfare within the broader great power rivalry with the United States. Putin might eventually choose to greenlight a limited Turkish incursion or coordinate a joint Turkish-Syrian pincer movement against the Kurds, knowing that this could keep Ankara happy ahead of the elections and would create a crisis inside NATO. He also knows that Turkish-Syrian normalization would put immense pressure on the residual U.S. position in Syria.
  • With the Assad regime, the Kurds should be aiming for an agreement that guarantees more autonomy than Damascus is currently willing to give but recognize they will have to accept less than what they want
  • Russia and the regime lack the resources to rebuild Syria and restore legitimacy to its government
  • There is already speculation that the ruling Justice and Development Party is looking for ways to secure conservative Kurdish electoral support or to peel Kurds away from the opposition block
  • A precipitous withdrawal would create a public humiliation like Afghanistan and a free-for-all which would likely leave the Kurds devastated and the region raked by new instability — which, in turn, could well be exploited by ISIL in a manner that eventually pulls the United States back to Syria for a counter-terrorism campaign
Ed Webb

Arabs Across Syria Join the Kurdish-Led Syrian Democratic Forces - MERIP - 1 views

  • Led by Kurds, the YPG evolved over time into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF): a multi-ethnic, multi-religious force in which all the indigenous peoples of the region are represented. Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Yezidis, Circassians and Turkmen have fought alongside Kurds to defend their homeland. By 2019, when the SDF had liberated all of Syrian territory from ISIS control, there were some 100,000 fighters (including SDF and Internal Security Forces) under the leadership of SDF commander-in-chief Mazlum Abdi, a Syrian Kurd and former Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) cadre.[2] The majority of his rank-and-file fighters, however, were Arabs.
  • My field survey of over 300 SDF members reveals that there are three main reasons for the SDF’s success in recruiting and retaining Arabs: First, the SDF offered material incentives such as salaries and training opportunities.[3] Second, the existence of a common threat—first ISIS and now Turkey—solidified bonds between Kurds and Arabs and also prompted many to enlist. Third, the survey shows that many Arab members of the SDF support at least some, if not all, of the basic political principles upon which the SDF and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) are based.
  • In September 2014, a joint operations room was established between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the YPG, known as Burkan al-Firat (Euphrates Volcano).[4] The ISIS siege of Kobane and ensuing US military support cemented the alliance between the YPG and a number of Arab units within the FSA, which led to the emergence of the SDF in October 2015.
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  • the SDF became the main partner force for the United States on the ground in Syria. In order to defeat ISIS, it was necessary to further expand the geographical reach of the SDF to Arab-majority cities such as Manbij, Raqqa, Tabqa and Deir Ezzor. In the course of this expansion, some Arab women were recruited as well. In July 2017, the YPJ (the women’s branch of the YPG) announced the creation of the first battalion of Arab women, the “Brigade of the Martyr Amara.”[5]
  • the expansion of the SDF and self-administration across north and east Syria was not always welcomed by Arab communities. The increase in Arab rank-and-file fighters has not yet been accompanied by an equally significant increase of Arabs in leadership positions, although Arabs have been promoted within both the military and civilian structures of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. The secular and gender-egalitarian ideology is not embraced by some more conservative members of society
  • In an attempt to undo tribal hierarchies, administration officials are encouraging people to use the term al-raey, which means shepherd
  • during my visits to ramshackle YPJ outposts in Manbij, Raqqa, Al-Sheddadi, Tabqa, Ain Issa, Al-Hasakah and elsewhere, I met many Arab women. They had all enlisted in the YPJ voluntarily, as there is no conscription for women. Many of them were eager to tell their stories
  • name of the governing entity was changed to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and the Kurdish term Rojava was dropped in December 2016.[10] Although this decision angered some Kurdish nationalists, it was justified by the expansion of the territory beyond Kurdish-majority areas. The official logo recognizes the linguistic diversity of the region, and is in four languages: Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac-Aramaic and Turkish. Furthermore, in 2018 the de-facto capital or administrative center of the region was moved from Qamishli to Ain Issa, an Arab town
  • By 2019, the SDF was in de-facto control of approximately one-third of Syria. The territory they defend from incursions by ISIS, the Turkish government and Syrian government forces is an ethnically and religiously diverse region. These six regions—Jazira, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Tabqa, Manbij and Euphrates—are governed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which operates semi-independently of Damascus. The Arabs who inhabit these six regions are not a homogenous group. While some Arabs have protested the policies of the Autonomous Administration, others openly endorse the new political project.
  • Inspired by an eclectic assortment of scholars, ranging from Murray Bookchin to Immanuel Wallerstein, the ideology that emerged is referred to as Democratic Confederalism. The nation-state is no longer a prize to be obtained but is now seen as part of the problem that led to the subjugation of Kurds in the first place, along with that of women and other minorities, and therefore to be avoided.
  • The emergence of Arab Apocis may be one of the many unexpected twists of the Syrian conflict, signifying the appeal of the Rojava revolution beyond Rojava.
  • A co-chair system was established where all leadership positions—from the most powerful institutions down to neighborhood communes—are held jointly by a man and a woman
  • here I focus on Arabs since they now constitute the majority of rank-and-file fighters and yet are frequently omitted from analyses of the SDF. Scholars, journalists, think tank analysts and government officials still incorrectly refer to the SDF as a Kurdish force.
  • joining the SDF entailed risks, especially for women. Anyone who joined the SDF from a city that was under the control of ISIS, or who joined from territory never controlled by the SDF, did so at great personal risk
  • The Syrian Democratic Forces is the only armed group in Syria that has a policy of not discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender, which has allowed the SDF to develop into a truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious force. This radical egalitarianism clearly appealed to non-Arab minorities who suffered under decades of pan-Arabism promoted by the Baathist regime of the Asad family. Kurds from the far corners of Kurdistan were galvanized by the promise of the Rojava revolution. What is less well appreciated is that Arabs have also embraced these ideals and practices.
  • a large number of Arab respondents rejected the Turkish occupation of Syria and demanded that the land be returned to Syria. Contrary to analysts who portray the conflict as one solely between Turkey and the Kurds, my survey shows that Arab SDF members also view the Turkish incursions and expanding Turkish presence as an illegitimate foreign occupation of Syrian land
  • The SDF faces ongoing threats from the Asad regime, Turkey and ISIS cells. The Turkish intervention in October 2019, however, did not lead to a disintegration of the SDF, or even to any serious defections, as some had predicted.[14]
Ed Webb

Israeli army launches retaliatory attack in Syria after Iranians strike Golan Heights -... - 1 views

  • the Israeli border with Syria
    • Ed Webb
       
      Absent a peace agreement, there is no Israeli *border* with Syria. There is a ceasefire line from the 1967 war. All land in the Golan Heights controlled by Israel is occupied territory according to international law, for all that Israel has announced its annexation of that territory.
  • This is the first time Israel directly accuses Iran of firing towards Israeli territory. During the Syrian Civil War errant fire struck the Golan several times; usually local organizations in southern Syria that are affiliated with Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime were behind those attacks
  • The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Wednesday that Israel has attacked targets of the Syrian military on the outskirts of Quneitra in the Golan Heights. 
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  • a Syrian report Tuesday accusing Israel of carrying out an attack on a military base south of Damascus, which was used by Iranian forces. According to reports, Israeli fighter jets entered Syrian airspace and struck Iranian missiles aimed at Israe
  • The Israeli military set out on an extensive retaliatory attack against Iranian targets and military bases in Syria early Thursday morning after Iranian forces fired 20 rockets at army outposts on the Golan Heights overnight.  
  • Israel attributes the Iranian attack to members of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. No injuries were reported as a result of the strike on Israeli territory
  • A source in the Israeli security establishment said this attack was the largest carried out by Israel since it signed on a disengagement agreement with Syria in May 1974. 
  • According to local reports in the Golan area, some of the targets attacked by the Israeli army were army posts as well as Iranian and Hezbollah militias in the Syrian Golan
  • The Israeli military further stated that the attack was specifically targeting Iranian posts in Syria and not in Lebanon
  • intelligence assessments earlier in the week anticipated that after U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he was withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear accord, Israel was likely to be targeted by rocket fire and Iran would try to retaliate
  • Tehran has issued several threats over the past month, saying that it would hurt Israel in response to a slew of attacks that were ascribed to the Israeli air force. The latest attack, carried out on May 9, claimed the lives of seven Iranians in the Syrian air force base T4.
Ed Webb

On Blaming Climate Change for the Syrian Civil War - MERIP - 0 views

  • the Syria climate conflict narrative is deeply problematic.[2] Not only is the evidence behind this narrative weak. In addition, it masks what was really occurring in rural Syria (and in the country’s northeast region in particular) prior to 2011, which was the unfolding of a long-term economic, environmental and political crisis. And crucially, the narrative largely originated from Syrian regime interests in deflecting responsibility for a crisis of its own making. Syria is less an exemplar of what awaits us as the planet warms than of the complex and uncomfortable politics of blaming climate change.
  • much of Syria and the eastern Mediterranean region experienced an exceptionally severe drought in the years before the onset of Syria’s civil war: the single year 2007–2008 was northeastern Syria’s driest on record, as was the three-year period 2006–2009
  • it is reasonable to say, per the Columbia study, that climate change did make this particular drought more likely
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  • The widely reproduced claim that 2 to 3 million people were driven into extreme poverty by the 2006–2009 drought was drawn, extraordinarily, from analyses by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) of pre-drought poverty levels.[4] The claim that around 1.5 million people were displaced was derived from a single humanitarian news bulletin, seemingly on the basis of a misreading of the UN’s estimate of those affected—not displaced—by the drought. Using Syrian government numbers, the UN actually reported drought-period displacement to be around 40,000–60,000 families.
  • A presidential decree in 2008, which tightened restrictions on land sales across the northeastern-most province of Hasakah, led to the extensive loss of land rights and was credited by some organizations as a key factor in the increased migration from northeast Syria prior to the war
  • during 2008–2009 rural Syria was hit by triple-digit increases in the prices of key agricultural inputs. In May 2008 fuel subsidies were halved, leading to an overnight 342 percent spike in the price of diesel. And then in May 2009 fertilizer subsidies were removed, causing prices to rise anywhere from 200 to 450 percent. The fuel subsidy cuts had particularly devastating economic consequences, especially for farmers reliant on cheap fuel for groundwater irrigation.
  • The fact that a number of neighboring countries experienced equivalent precipitation declines during 2006–2009—or in Iraq’s case an even larger decline—but no comparable migration crises, suggests at the very least that the migration from Syria’s northeast must have been caused more by these Syria-specific factors than by the drought.
  • Proponents of the climate conflict thesis typically claim that drought-induced displacement caused a “population shock” within Syria’s urban peripheries, exacerbating pre-existing socio-economic pressures. Yet Syria’s cities grew rapidly throughout the decade before the civil war, not only during the drought years. By our calculations, excess migration from the northeast during 2008–2009 amounted to just 4–12 percent of Syria’s 2003–2010 urban growth (and this excess migration was not all triggered by drought)
  • As Syria’s pre-eminent breadbasket region—the heartland of strategic crop production—Hasakah was particularly vulnerable to economic liberalization and the withdrawal of input supports. No other region of the country was so dependent on groundwater for irrigation, a factor that made it particularly vulnerable to fuel price increases. Hasakah’s groundwater resources were also exceptionally degraded, even by Syrian standards
  • a deep and long-term structural agrarian crisis
  • it is evident that northeastern Syria’s agrarian troubles—and especially those in the province of Hasakah—went all the way back to 2000, and indeed earlier. Production of the two main government-designated strategic crops, wheat and cotton, was in decline in Hasakah from the early 2000s onward. Land and settlements were being abandoned there well before the drought. Net out-migration from Hasakah during this period was higher than from any other province. And the reasons for this lay not in the drought but in the contradictions of Syrian development.
  • an agrarian socialist development program, promoting rapid expansion of the country’s agricultural sector and deploying Soviet aid and oil income to this end. Among other elements, this program involved heavy investment in agricultural and especially water supply infrastructure, low interest loans for private well drilling, price controls on strategic crops at well above international market value, the annual wiping clean of state farm losses and, as already indicated, generous input subsidies
  • Environmentally, the model relied above all on the super-exploitation of water resources, especially groundwater—a problem which by the early 2000s had become critical. And economically, Syrian agriculture had become highly input dependent, reliant on continuing fuel subsidies in particular.
  • as Marwa Daoudy concludes in her new book on the subject, there is “little evidence” that “climate change in Syria sparked popular revolt in 2011”—but “a lot of evidence” that “suggests it did not.”
  • Irrespective of any drought impacts, these developments essentially occurred when the props that had until then artificially maintained an over-extended agricultural production system—oil export rents, a pro-agrarian ideology and their associated price controls—were suddenly and decisively removed.
  • Within just a few short years, Syria embraced principles of economic liberalization, privatized state farms, liberalized trade and reduced price control levels. At the same time domestic oil production and exports fell rapidly, thus undermining the regime’s rentier foundations and its capacity to subsidize agriculture
  • The region was also deeply affected by intense irrigation development and over-abstraction of groundwater resources within Turkey
  • It was Ba’athist state policies which had turned Hasakah into a region of wheat monoculture, failed to promote economic diversification and facilitated cultivation ever deeper into the badiya (the desert) while over-exploiting surface and groundwater resources. Moreover, these measures were taken partly for strategic and geostrategic reasons, bound up with regime interests in expanding and consolidating Hasakah’s Arab population (its project of Arabization), in controlling and excluding the province’s Kurdish population and in extending its control and presence within a strategically sensitive borderland and frontier region. During the heyday of Ba’athist agrarian development, Hasakah’s population and agricultural sector expanded like in no other area. With the collapse of this development model, rural crisis and out-migration were the inevitable result.
  • After an initial reluctance to acknowledge the depth of the crisis in the northeast, the government eventually embraced the climate crisis narrative with gusto. The drought was “beyond our powers,” claimed Asad. The drought was “beyond our capacity as a country to deal with,” claimed the Minister of Agriculture. “Syria could have achieved [its] goals pertaining to unemployment, poverty and growth if it was not for the drought,” proclaimed Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah al-Dardari.[12] Indeed, as the International Crisis Group reported, the Asad regime would regularly take diplomats to the northeast and tell them, “it all has to do with global warming,” blaming what was in essence a state-induced socio-ecological crisis on climatic transformations beyond its control.[13] This shifting of blame is essentially how the Syria climate crisis narrative began.
  • Official UN reports on the crisis in the northeast, which were produced in collaboration with the Syrian regime, were predictably drought-centric, barely mentioning any factors other than drought, omitting any criticisms of government policy and ignoring the existence of a discriminated-against Kurdish minority
  • International media reports on the subject were similarly focused on  drought, no doubt partly because of media preferences for simplified and striking narratives, but also because they relied upon UN sources and took these at their word
  • The climate crisis narrative reached its apogee in 2015, in the run-up to the UN Paris conference on climate change, when countless politicians and commentators turned to the example of Syria to illustrate the urgency of international action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
  • regurgitated as a statement of fact in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and by Western liberal politicians and eco-socialist campaigners alike
  • climate change is also much more than a physical reality and looming environmental threat: It is simultaneously an object of discourse, debate and rhetoric, a potent meta-narrative that can be invoked for explanation, legitimation, blame avoidance and enrichment.
  • climate change is already regularly invoked to questionable ends across the Middle East and North Africa. It is used to explain away ecological catastrophes actually caused by unsustainable agricultural expansion, to make the case for investment in new and often unnecessary mega-projects, to obscure state mismanagement of local environmental resources and to argue against the redistribution of such resources to oppressed and minority groups
  • blaming climate change is often a distraction from the real causes of socio-ecological crisis
Ed Webb

Leaving - 0 views

  • It will seem counterintuitive to many that someone would trade “senior official” status for a job in a “think tank” to exert more influence. But I had concluded in the late summer of 2012 that President Barack Obama’s words of a year earlier about Assad stepping aside were empty, and that my efforts in government to bring dead words to life were futile.  Instead of implementing what had sounded like the commander-in-chief’s directive, the State Department was saddled in August 2012 by the White House with a make-work, labor-intensive project cataloguing the countless things that would have to be in place for a post-Assad Syria to function. But how to get to post-Assad? The White House had shut down the sole interagency group examining options for achieving that end.
  • My job since April 2009, as a deputy to Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, was to build a foundation for Syrian-Israeli and eventually Israeli-Lebanese peace. Progress on the former seemed to be happening. Yet by using deadly force on his own citizens, Assad ended, perhaps forever, a process that might have recovered for Syria the territory lost by his Minister of Defense father in 1967.  When the full story of Syria’s betrayal by a family and its entourage is written, the decision of Assad to sink a potentially promising peace mediation will merit a chapter.
  • President Obama would caricature external alternatives by creating and debating straw men: invented idiots calling for the invasion and occupation of Syria.  He would deal with internal dissent by taking officials through multi-step, worst-case, hypothetical scenarios of what might happen in the wake of any American attempt, no matter how modest, to complicate regime mass murder. The ‘logical’ result would inevitably involve something between World War III and an open-ended, treasury-draining American commitment.  The result of these exercises in self-disarmament would be Vladimir Putin and his ilk concluding that American power was, as a practical matter, equal to Palau’s; Ukraine could be dismembered, NATO allies threatened, and the United States itself harassed with impunity. He did not mean to do it, but Barack Obama’s performance in Syria produced global destabilization.
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  • It was not until the fall of 2014 when it became clear what was motivating him. The Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon reported on a “secret” letter from the president to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, in which (among other things) Mr. Obama reportedly assured Khamenei that American military power aimed at ISIS (ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh) in Syria would not target the Assad regime. But why give Khamenei such a reckless assurance, one that would surely be relayed to Assad, enhancing his already massive sense of impunity, with deadly consequences for Syrian civilians?
  • if necessary, apply modest military measures to complicate civilian mass murder, and not only when the murder weapon is sarin nerve agent. 
  • The Trump administration is infinitely more open to considering policy alternatives than was its predecessor. Yet in Washington’s hyper-partisan state, some who fully understood and opposed the catastrophic shortcomings of the Obama approach to Syria reflexively criticize anything the new administration does or considers doing to end the Assad regime’s free ride for civilian slaughter. Letting Syrian civilians pay the price for self-serving political motives may never go out of style in some Western political circles.
  • I remain hopeful that American leaders will, at last, arrive at a Syria policy worthy of the United States.  Such a policy would stabilize a post-ISIS Syria east of the Euphrates River in a way that would encourage the emergence of a Syrian governmental alternative to a crime family and its murderous entourage. 
  • Tehran was indeed dependent on Bashar al-Assad to provide strategic depth for and support to its own jewel in the crown: Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Barack Obama feared that protecting Syrian civilians could anger Iran and cause it to walk away from nuclear talks. From his point of view, the prices paid by Syrians, Syria’s neighbors, and American allies in the region and beyond were worth the grand prize. It seems never to have occurred to him that Iran wanted the nuclear deal for its own reasons, and did not require being appeased in Syria. I was told by senior Iranian ex-officials in track II discussions that they were stunned and gratified by American passivity in Syria.
  • such a policy, while being open to any genuine offer of Russian cooperation in Syria, would recognize that (in the words of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats) “Frankly, the United States is under attack.” He was referring to Russia.
Ed Webb

Here's Why You Probably Won't Read This Article About Syria - 0 views

  • analysis by BuzzFeed News shows the number of shares on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites of the most-read stories about Syria in the past two months were a 10th of what they were just over a year ago
  • “I work so hard to try and post videos, but no one cares. I don’t know what to say. They just see the article or report, and just say: ‘Oh, that’s really sad.’ And after that they turn the internet off and go and live their lives.”
  • “People are feeling helpless, they are feeling [that] it is not that we don’t care — it’s that we just can’t do anything.”
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  • Once the footage is online people like Ethar El-Katatney, executive producer of AJ+, pick it up, and try to work out how they can tell the next story from Syria.“All of the footage I am looking at today looks the same as the footage I saw a year ago and it’s the same dust, and blood, and screaming, and hospital rooms and hospital floors,” El-Katatney told BuzzFeed News. “It has become normalized.”
  • human brains are incapable of coping with prolonged catastrophes, a phenomenon called “psychic numbing.”
  • In the final two months of 2016, as the four-year siege of the rebel-held city of Aleppo ended in brutal fashion, the four more-shared stories were all shared more than 300,000 times. The best performing story (about how people could help civilians trapped in Aleppo) was shared more than half a million times, almost entirely on Facebook.However, in January and February this year, as the Syrian regime and Russian forces bombarded the enclave of Eastern Ghouta, the most viral piece across all publishers (a BBC News article about children struggling to survive) was shared just 42,000 times.
  • “We have hit a ceiling in shocking people,” El-Katatney said. “From [a] pool of blood, or a dying child, and now people have come across severed limbs, decapitation. I don’t think there is anything that I can show that will shock anyone, no matter what it is.
  • the more death and destruction you see, on social media for example, the more your feelings of empathy actually decreases. “One plus one is less than two,” in this situation, he said.“We do numb to repeated photographs, just like we numb to increasing numbers of individuals,”
  • almost half a million people have been killed, 5 million more have fled the country, and 6 million have been displaced internally
  • Decisions made by US President Donald Trump’s administration have contributed to keeping the conflict from the international community’s attention. Despite bombing Syria, Trump’s only focus in the country has been ISIS, leaving a vacuum that has been occupied fully by Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces, who have worked together with the regime of Bashar al-Assad to bombard the remaining rebels, like those in besieged Eastern Ghouta.
  • "I think the world is frustrated by the actions of the major powers," said Salwa Aksoy, vice president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. "The struggle has lasted so long, and the scale of the war crimes has reached a level where there is just too much pain for the international community to look at it,”
  • “All of our calls to protect children inside Syria have gone unheeded,” she said.“People are genuinely upset, if not angry or outraged, about what is happening now in Syria. For that I have no doubt about,’ she said. “There is, however, a certain element of fatigue among people about the suffering and the continuous horror stories. I think a lot of people feel helpless over what is happening and not being able to stop the bloodshed in Syria.”
  • “What kind of ways can we cover Syria that we haven’t done a thousand times before, whether it is with footage or with the scripting? And sometimes we fail. Sometimes there just really is nothing.”For Adam, messaging from a rooftop elsewhere in Ghouta, he could see the people not retweeting his stories, but he could also hear the shelling continue. “Today, like always bombing, airstrikes, and people killed. Like every day,” he said.“But no one cares.”
Ed Webb

The Halkbank Case Should Be a Very Big Deal - Lawfare - 0 views

  • If the New York Times’s story about the Justice Department’s handling of the case of  Turkish bank—and President Trump’s interference in that case—had broken any other week, it would be a very big deal. A week before the election, the country inured to the president’s propensity to abuse law enforcement power, it has barely merited a yawn.  The case is worth your time.
  • Berman’s bizarre firing may have been related to a pressure campaign by Barr and the White House to frustrate a high-profile investigation by Berman’s office. The story of Trump and Barr’s efforts to hamstring the investigation into the Turkish bank, Halkbank, says a great deal about Trump’s abuses of law enforcement, his financial entanglements abroad and his susceptibility to foreign influence.
  • an alleged scheme on the part of the state-owned Turkish bank to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran
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  • The investigation was of great interest to Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has sought since 2016 to quash the probe. According to the Times, Erdogan may have come close to succeeding.
  • a meeting between Trump and Erdogan in 2018, during which Trump declared Halkbank to be innocent and told Erdogan he would, in Bolton’s words, “take care of things.” He then asked Bolton to reach out to then-Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker on the matter. Later in 2018, after Trump and Erdogan spoke again, the Times reports that the White House told the southern district that the attorney general, the treasury security and the secretary of state would all become more involved in the case. 
  • Mnuchin had already reached out to the Justice Department seeking to scale down the potential fine paid by Halkbank in any settlement, following direct outreach by Erdogan’s son-in-law
  • Whitaker ordered Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to shut down the Halkbank case—stating, confusingly, that an indictment of the bank could pose risks to U.S. forces in Syria. Department officials opted to simply ignore Whitaker’s request. But after Barr was confirmed as attorney general, he too put pressure on the southern district, pushing prosecutors to allow Halkbank to walk away with only a fine and a limited acknowledgment of wrongdoing—a proposal that Berman reportedly described as “completely wrong.”
  • The first and more nefarious possibility is that the president pressured the Department of Justice to go easy on Halkbank and Erdogan’s cronies in order to protect his own sizable financial interests in Turkey. The second possibility is less horrible, but it’s not exactly reassuring. Perhaps Trump was swayed by Erdogan’s influence to make policy decisions that cut against the prosecutorial interests of his own government
  • no plausible benign explanations for Trump’s conduct here
  • it was just before Trump’s December 2018 Syria withdrawal order that Whitaker suggested that failing to drop the investigation against Halkbank might result to threats to U.S. forces in Syria—an argument that might have channeled threats that Erdogan’s regime was publicly making at the time.
  • efforts have continued both through direct engagement between Turkish and American officials and through the hiring of individuals close to the president himself—including, inevitably, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani
  • Trump certainly appears to have come to value what he sees as a personal relationship with Erdogan, lauding Erdogan as “a hell of a leader” and bragging that he is “the only one [Erdogan] will listen to” among NATO allies
  • Trump even invited Erdogan to a meeting at the White House in November 2019, just weeks after slapping (and then removing) sanctions on Turkey for its offensive into northern Syria
  • Trump has a long record of puzzling policy interventions when it comes to Turkey
  • in December 2018, following a call with Erdogan, Trump suddenly reversed course and ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops—a move so unexpected that it ultimately led Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other senior officials to resign in protest. After another intervention by Trump in October 2019, following another call with Erdogan, Turkey was left in control of a broad swathe of Syria’s northern border, including Kurdish areas important to SDF allies of the United States.
  • he made a cursory review of Erdogan’s memo offering a thin legal theory about US sanctions and impulsively sided with the authoritarian leader over the prosecutors of the southern district
  • Turkish officials hired soon-to-be National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to lobby the incoming administration for the extradition of dissident Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, whose followers Erdogan blames for the 2016 coup attempt against his regime
  • The Trump administration has also refused to impose statutorily-required sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of a prohibited Russian missile system, without explanation and despite congressional pressure to do so. 
  • What exactly Trump has gotten in exchange for these positions is far from clear
  • Erdogan’s consistent ability to come out on top in Trump’s policy deliberations is, to say the least, impressive. And here it’s impossible to ignore Trump’s financial interests in the country: according to the Times’s review of Trump’s tax documents, he received profits of at least $2.6 million from business operations in Turkey between 2015 and 2018. And earlier reporting by the Times on Trump’s taxes describes how the Turkish government and business community “have not hesitated to leverage various Trump enterprises to their advantage,” strategically booking Trump properties to host events in efforts to curry favor with the president. 
  • If the president was motivated, in whole or in part, by a desire to curry favor with Erdogan in order to benefit his personal finances, that would be a grave abuse of office and plainly impeachable conduct
  • Trump has already been impeached for abusing his office for private campaign benefit; abuse of office for personal financial enrichment would be even worse.
  • this is the type of complex policy decision where it is nearly impossible to establish conclusively improper motives
  • The Halkbank situation is exactly why presidents are expected to abide by ethics rules—including divesting from business interests—and why Trump’s refusal to adhere to the norms of good governance presented serious national security implications from the outset
  • Having taken no effort to avoid the conflict, Trump isn’t entitled to the benefit of the doubt. And notably, those privy to Trump’s actual decisionmaking with respect to Turkey aren’t extending that benefit.
  • brazen financial corruption
  • If he wasn’t seeking financial benefit, then Trump has somehow been persuaded by Erdogan to take actions that contravene his own stated policy goals. A president who is so easily outwitted and susceptible to improper influence is a frightening thing
  • Saudi Arabia and its allies have conducted their own charm offensive, engaging lobbyists and cultivating a notoriously close relationship between Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
  • it is concerning for a president to be so willing to dictate major aspects of U.S. foreign policy on the basis of his personal preferences, often without even checking them against the views of his advisors or coordinating them through the broader government bureaucracy
  • The Trump administration has almost entirely declined to criticize Erdogan’s bad-and-worsening record on human rights, as he and his regime have engaged in politically motivated investigations and prosecutions at home and turned a blind eye to atrocities in those parts of Syria under its control
  • Berman refused to go along with Barr’s proposed settlement, which he considered to be unethical. Months later, Barr fired Berman—and then lied about the circumstances and reasons why
  • Once again, the president is intervening in an investigation and a prosecutorial decision in a fashion that appears self-interested, appears to cut against stated U.S. policy to the benefit of an authoritarian leader and his interests, and appears influenced by the president’s own business concerns.
Ed Webb

Obama's Syria Strategy Is the Definition of Insanity | Foreign Policy - 0 views

  • The Russian government, much less the Assad regime, has never been a reliable partner for peace in Syria. But even after Russia’s alleged bombing of the aid convoy, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is still plowing its energies into a deal that aims to work with the Russian government.
  • The Obama administration has viewed the Syrian crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. But diplomatic failures such as this one continue to embolden extremist actors like al Qaeda, which has purposely presented itself as a reliable and necessary opposition ally, seemingly dedicated only to the cause of ridding Syria of the Assad regime. By so deeply embedding within Syrian revolutionary dynamics and claiming to fill the vacuum left behind by insufficient foreign support or protection, al Qaeda’s narrative is constantly strengthened by perceptions of American inadequacy. Thus, U.S. failures do not exist in a vacuum — our adversaries quickly translate them into their own victories.
  • the Russian government is not the key to controlling the Assad regime’s heinous behaviors. For a week straight, the Syrian government consistently ignored Moscow’s demands and destroyed a cease-fire deal that had been largely of Russia’s making. The regime also reinforced its troop positions around Aleppo and amassed forces opposite the strategic northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, and its aircraft were blamed for bombings around Aleppo, north of the city of Homs, and in parts of southern Daraa governorate. And after the Assad government declared the cease-fire over, Russia ferociously destroyed an aid convoy intended for 78,000 civilians
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  • Bashar al-Assad does not intend to step down from power, and he will use any means at his disposal to prevent that from happening
  • Five years ago, Syria was a local problem; today it is an international one. U.S. indecision, risk aversion, a total divergence between rhetoric and policy, and a failure to uphold clearly stated “red lines” have all combined into what can best be described as a cold-hearted, hypocritical approach. At worst, Washington has indirectly abetted the wholesale destruction of a nation-state, in direct contradiction to its fundamental national security interests and its most tightly held values.
  • U.S. commitment remained negligible when compared with our often uncoordinated regional allies, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. It seems U.S. officials wanted Assad out but wanted others — whom administration officials would say in private they did not trust — to do it for them
  • The result? Nearly half a million people dead, more than 1 million people living under siege, and 11 million people displaced. Catastrophic refugee flows have led to an anti-immigrant backlash in Europe and the rise of far-right politics while Syria is now home to perhaps the greatest concentration of jihadi militants in any single country ever
  • Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — formerly the Nusra Front — the most capable, politically savvy, and militarily powerful al Qaeda movement in history. Al Qaeda’s central leadership has also revitalized itself inside Syria, with the international terrorist organization’s newly named deputy leader almost certainly residing in the country. The correlation is simple: U.S. shortcomings equal al Qaeda’s success in Syria.
  • most Syrians living in opposition areas now view al Qaeda as a more trustworthy and capable protector of their lives than the United States. If there were ever a sign of policy failure, this would be it.
  • there will be no purely military solution to Syria’s conflict — a negotiated settlement is the only feasible path toward stability. However, Assad will never treat a political process with any level of seriousness until placed under meaningful pressure, which the United States has thus far done everything in its power not to do.
  • Opposition to partition is arguably the single issue that unites communities supportive of and opposed to Assad
  • combating al Qaeda in Syria cannot be done solely with bullets and bombs. Defeating it is instead an issue of providing a more attractive and sustainable alternative to the jihadi group’s narrative. Given its successful efforts to embed within the opposition and build popular acceptance as a military (not a political) ally, al Qaeda does not represent a conventional counterterrorist problem
  • If Assad remains in place indefinitely and the conflict continues or worsens, the Islamic State will undoubtedly live to fight another day
  • Civilian protection should remain the core focus of any broad-based strategy, but it must be backed up by real and discernible consequences for violators
  • Skeptics of a more assertive approach to the Syrian crisis can deride their critics as much as they want — but one would hope that after five years of failures, they would at least admit that they have got something wrong
Ed Webb

Former Obama officials propose talking with Iran on Syria aid | The Back Channel - 0 views

  • Amid deepening US-Russia strains over Ukraine, two former Obama administration officials say it may be time for the US to explore trying to develop a channel with Iran to discuss Syria, beginning with humanitarian relief.
  • “My bottom line sense with the Iranians is there’s hope for a US-Iran conversation [on Syria humanitarian aid] that is a serious and potentially productive one,” Frederic Hof, a former senior US diplomat advising the Obama administration on Syria and the Levant, told Al-Monitor.in an interview last week. In track 2 conversations with Iranians that Hof has been involved in, “the people I talk to are blunt:  they are not interested in talking about a [Syria] political transition,” Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. “They need Assad and regime support to Hezbollah in Lebanon as Iran’s first line of defense against Israel and the possibility of an Israeli air assault on their nuclear facilities.”
  • Those “in charge of the US role in the P5+1 will absolutely oppose any kind of cross -pollination or discussion about Syria. So it takes a decision almost at the highest level,” to try to pursue a Syria channel with Iran.
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  • Hof said he raised with Iranian interlocutors in track 2 talks the prospect of a scenario in which a “Srebrenica-style moment” occurred in Syria, as the Iran and the P5+1 were advancing a nuclear deal. A scenario in which “your client does something so outrageous, that it inspires POTUS to do what he declined to do in August or September,” Hof said. “To the extent you guys are serious on the nuclear front, what does that do to that progress?” Hof asked his Iranian interlocutors. “And they looked at one another and shrugged, because their attitude is, Assad is not the most reliable guy in the world.”
Ed Webb

The Islamic State Isn't Behind Syria's Amphetamine Trade, But the Regime Could Be - 0 views

  • Scientists first produced Captagon, the brand name of the drug fenethylline, in the 1960s to treat depression and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Two decades later, the World Health Organization banned the substance due its high potential for addiction, abuse, and other adverse health effects. But counterfeit Captagon—which is sometimes just a cocktail of amphetamines with no fenethylline—remains in demand on the black market in the Middle East.
  • pills intercepted in Salerno arrived on three ships from Latakia, a Syrian port, and Italian police quickly announced that the Islamic State was responsible for their production and shipment—allegedly to fund its global terrorism operations.
  • Global media outlets disseminated the information provided by the Italian police without questioning it, replicating misinformation without considering how a scattered group of Islamic State members could pull off such an operation—but the truth is, they probably didn’t
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  • more likely that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has a hand in producing Captagon, reaping a profit that it can invest into its armed campaigns against civilians and damaging the health of many Syrians who are now addicted to amphetamines after years of war
  • “When Syria invaded Lebanon in the ’90s there were many reports showing the Syrian military were aiding and abetting hashish and opium production in the Bekaa Valley,”
  • Captagon production flourished in Syria after 2013, when a crackdown in neighboring Lebanon likely forced Hezbollah to relocate its drug production operations next door. The shift came at an opportune time for the Syrian regime, as it needed money to fund its military campaign against rebel groups
  • The majority of Syria’s Captagon production sites are in regime-held areas, according to Abu Ja’far, a former truck driver who worked between Homs, Rif-Dimashq, and Aleppo. “You only need some deserted homes and a few workers supervised by someone with strong connections,”
  • International organizations are unable to conduct research on the ground, meaning there is no concrete evidence linking the Assad regime to the Captagon trade. But sources say that strong protection would be required to produce, sell, and export the drugs from regime-held areas. “It was always possible in a country at war that those best placed to safely manufacture a drug in large quantities would be people in the regime … or in areas the regime were guaranteeing security,”
  • Last year, more than 33 million Captagon pills were seized in Greece after being shipped from regime-held Latakia. And in April this year, Saudi customs seized more than 44 million pills hidden in tea packaging from a company close to the Assad family.
  • At the height of its territorial control, the Islamic State was involved in the black market, trading looted antiquities, arms, and oil. But there is little evidence that the group ever produced Captagon—even if individual fighters used the drug on the battlefield. It would not have been sanctioned at the institutional level because of the group’s Salafism: Islamic State leaders punished people caught smoking or selling tobacco, making it unlikely they condoned the manufacturing of amphetamines.
  • Saudi Arabia has long been the No. 1 consumer of Captagon, which is popular among young and affluent partygoers. As conflict drags on in Libya, it is also possible the large shipment was destined for the port of Benghazi, with Europe as a transit point.
  • While much of the Captagon produced in Syria is destined for overseas markets, Syrians themselves suffer some of the worst damage from the trade. The worst-quality Captagon tablets are sold within Syria for as cheap as $1 per pill
  • Captagon is known to inhibit tiredness, hunger, and fear. But its use is now common among all demographics in Syria, not just fighters. The most common side effects include extreme depression, insomnia, malnutrition, and heart and blood toxicity
Ed Webb

Trump's Syria Strategy Would Be a Disaster | Foreign Policy - 1 views

  • A brief history lesson should suffice to demonstrate the Assad regime’s lack of counterterrorism qualifications. This is the government whose intelligence apparatus methodically built al Qaeda in Iraq, and then the Islamic State in Iraq, into a formidable terrorist force to fight U.S. troops in that country from 2003 to 2010
  • Trump’s suggestion to partner with Russia in “smashing” the Islamic State is little more than a non sequitur, given Russia’s near-consistent focus on everything but the jihadi group
  • contrary to an increasingly popular narrative, fighters in these vetted groups are not, with very few exceptions, handing over U.S. weapons to jihadis, nor are they wandering off to join the extremists themselves. The cornerstone of the CIA effort has been to supply rebel groups with U.S.-manufactured BGM-71 TOW anti-tank guided missiles, which have ensured that the moderate opposition has remained a relevant actor in the conflict. Thus far, according to publicly available information, at least 1,073 TOW missiles have been sent to Syria and used in combat, only 12 of which have changed hands and been used by nonvetted groups — amounting to an impressively low proliferation rate of 1.1 percent
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  • the Kremlin’s focus has unequivocally and consistently been on fighting Syria’s mainstream opposition, not the Islamic State. Much of its targeting has been against U.S.-linked members of Syria’s opposition
  • Trump appears to be indicating a preference for combating the symptoms of a crisis — that is, terrorism — while strengthening their principal cause: Assad’s dictatorship and his refusal to negotiate
  • he risks exacerbating six major threats to U.S. domestic and international security
  • The widespread perception that Washington is indifferent to the suffering of Syrian civilians has led ever more members of the Syrian opposition to consider al Qaeda a more willing and more effective protector of their lives and interests than the United States, the supposed “leader of the free world.” Trump’s proposed abandonment of the Syrian opposition would permanently cement that perception and make Syria a pre-9/11 Afghanistan on steroids. This should be deeply troubling to anyone concerned about international security, given Syria’s proximity to Europe.
  • Removing that U.S. role risks re-creating the chaos and infighting that ruled the early days of the Syrian crisis, but this time in a context where extremists are poised to swiftly take advantage.
  • it would not be altogether surprising to see Qatar or Turkey — for example — switching the bulk of their support to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and similar groups were the United States to cease supporting the opposition
  • Regional states may also feel justified in breaking a long U.S. taboo in sending anti-aircraft weapons like MANPADS to their closest proxies on the ground in Syria. To a certain extent, this illicit flow of anti-aircraft weaponry has already begun in response to perceptions of insufficient U.S. “muscle” in preventing the brutal assault on the besieged eastern districts of Aleppo. According to well-placed opposition sources, at least three small shipments of MANPADS have entered northern Syria since late 2015.
  • Although a U.S.-Russian alliance would likely increase the threat to the Islamic State’s territorial holdings in Syria, at least in the short term, such a partnership would be an invaluable long-term boon to the group’s propaganda. Were Russia to employ the same carpet-bombing tactics it has used in its attempt to crush the Syrian opposition, the consequences of such “victories” would ensure that the Islamic State has a ready-made narrative to attempt a determined resurgence with some level of popular acceptance or even support.
  • a potential U.S.-Russian partnership in Syria could also further energize the Islamic State’s calls for attacks against targets in the West, particularly in the United States
  • Paired with the possibility that Trump may introduce newly oppressive domestic policies on immigration and other issues relating to race and religion, this scenario portends greater threats, not a safer America
  • As a staunch opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, it is surprising that Trump appears to be proposing Syria policies that would save Iran from a geopolitically crippling defeat and strengthen its regional influence
  • Were President-elect Trump to drop America’s insistence that Assad has lost his legitimacy and must be removed through transition, not only would Iran gain immeasurably, but the greatest immediate terrorist threat to Israel would be free to point its formidable weapons array toward America’s most valued regional ally
  • Putin seeks to secure a Russian rise at the expense of American power and influence, not in equal partnership with them.
  • A combination of all or some of the above-mentioned scenarios would produce dynamics that would undoubtedly further exacerbate Syria’s refugee crisis, leaving as many as 5 million Syrians permanently outside their country’s borders. With Assad remaining in power and his various backers secure in his defense, a quarter of Syria’s entire prewar population would be highly unlikely to ever return to their homes, meaning that neighboring states would be left to shoulder the unsustainable costs of housing them while many refugees would embrace desperate attempts to get to Europe.
  • Although it remains possible that President-elect Trump will do away with his perilously simplistic reading of the Syrian crisis, the dangers of pursuing a policy based on his limited understanding should be well-understood. As five years of failed policy under President Barack Obama has shown, treating the symptoms of the crisis rather than its root cause — Assad’s dictatorship — will only lead to further displacement and ruin.
Ed Webb

Russia Confirms Its Uran-9 Robot Tank Is On The Ground In Syria - 1 views

  • Russia has been on the forefront of building unmanned ground vehicles and last week the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that their armed drone tank Uran-9 was tested in Syria.
  • While the deployment of the Uran-6, a minesweeping drone, in Syria has been widely reported on, little has been said publicly about the Uran-9, and military observers and analysts have yet to see it in Syria.
  • the resurgent Russian military has battle tested an arsenal of new weapons including the Su-57 stealth fighter jet, the T-90 battle tank, ship-launched cruise missiles and air defense systems
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  • It remains unclear if the Uran-9 saw combat and where in Syria it was deployed, but the area has served as a proving ground for advanced Russian weapons.
  • “As we helped the brotherly Syrian people, we tested over 200 new types of weapons,” said Vladimir Shamanov, the head of Russian parliament’s Defense Committee and a retired military officer.
  • it is unclear how these systems will perform in hotly contested areas with heavy electronic warfare that could jam or hijack a controller’s system. In Syria, reports have emerged that Russian jamming has affected the GPS systems of small U.S. surveillance drones, disrupting their operations
Ed Webb

Russia calls on Jordan to help stabilize Syrian 'safe' zones - 0 views

  • If the frequency of diplomatic gestures is an indication, Jordan appears to be Moscow's strongest ally in the Middle East. Yet despite a solid record of cooperation, as well as a certain chemistry between Abdullah and Putin, Amman never really played a prominent role in Russia’s Mideast strategy, including in Syria. This approach, however, got a review last year when Russia was faced with the challenge of implementing de-escalation zones in Syria, specifically the one along Jordan's border. Along with the old challenge of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement — which recently became even more complex — the need to settle Syria's civil war took center stage at the Abdullah-Putin meeting Feb. 15.
  • Jordan essentially became a linchpin of Russian policy toward southern Syria when the kingdom played a key role in negotiating a de-escalation zone that spans across Quneitra and Daraa provinces and borders Israel and Jordan. During his visit to Moscow, Abdullah boasted about the two countries’ active dialogue on Syria — and the southern de-escalation zone is where this dialogue is most visible. Since 2015, the two countries have operated a joint center in Amman to share intelligence on the situation in southern provinces and coordinate military action.
  • The Russian plan to give Jordan an active role in settling the Syrian conflict was part of the strategy to create an environment — or the illusion of one — of a Sunni Arab power normalizing relations with and accepting Assad. It is not surprising that Abdullah was susceptible to Russia’s plan: The West hasn't acknowledged Jordan's accommodation of Syrian refugees and has failed to nurture a strong resistance to Assad in the south.
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  • The most recent round of escalation between Israel and Iran in Syria caught both Russia and Jordan off guard. Iran’s attempts to test its opponent’s capabilities in the south, and Israel’s ambition to expand its buffer zone in Syria, threaten the de-escalation zone
  • The ongoing offensive of the Syrian government and Iran in Eastern Ghouta — in clear violation of the agreements — may also bode ill for the de-escalation zone in the south, as both the southern front and Israel now see another land grab as Damascus' next possible step. Because of this, Israel is seeking to establish a buffer inside Syria through financial and military support to opposition groups inside the de-escalation zone
  • Russia hopes Jordan will project its influence on the southern front to act as a buffer between Israel and the Iranian-backed forces while Moscow seeks a workable path to their coexistence in Syria
Ed Webb

It's Russia's Syrian Mercenaries vs. Turkey's Syrian Mercenaries in Libya's War - 0 views

  • Saar is among the Syrian rebels paid by Turkey to fight alongside the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA), one of the sides claiming power in the protracted Libyan conflict, which began with an uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 and is now a battle for lucrative oil deals and regional influence. The GNA is recognized by the United Nations and backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational group that propagates political Islam with the support of powerful allies such as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Shared allegiance with the Brothers brought Turkey to the interim government’s aid, and its enhanced military support has recently turned the tide of the war in the GNA’s favor.
  • A 38-year-old father of four, Saar metamorphosed from a rebel to a mercenary as a consequence of prolonged privations inflicted by unending war in Syria. “My wife and four children live in a tent. I don’t have money to buy cement blocks to build a room for them,” he told Foreign Policy over the phone from Libya. “When my wife gave birth, I didn’t even have money to buy diapers and milk for the baby.”
  • Saar is an Arab, not a Turkmen, but he chose to join the group to earn a living. In 2018, he was among the rebels hired by Turkey to oust Kurdish militias and hundreds of thousands of civilians from Afrin in northern Syria. (Turkey accuses the Kurdish militias of conducting terrorist attacks inside Turkey and instigating secession.) In Afrin, Saar was paid 450 Turkish liras, a paltry stipend that comes to $46 a month. Libya, however, is a much more profitable assignment. “In my four months in Libya, I have earned more than I did in years of fighting in Syria. I earn $2,000 a month,”
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  • in Syria, other former rebels, dealing with the same deprivation, were being enticed to join the same war—but on the side of the commander Khalifa Haftar, the GNA’s main rival backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
  • In March, Russia turned to Syria for reinforcements. It roped in its Syrian ally Assad to back its preferred Libyan warlord and began scouting for men willing to render services in a foreign conflict in exchange for cash.
  • Syrian rebels say the man tasked with leading this recruitment drive was Col. Alexander Zorin, who in 2016 served as the Russian defense ministry’s envoy at the Geneva-based task force on cessation of hostilities in Syria. Zorin is better known in Syria as “the godfather” of reconciliation deals between the regime and rebels in Ghouta, Daraa, and Quneitra.
  • In cooperation with Assad’s intelligence officials, Zorin is believed to have initiated negotiations with a number of rebel groups to send them to fight in Libya. Abu Tareq (his name has been changed for this article), the leader of a rebel group that fought the Islamic State in Quneitra in southern Syria, told Foreign Policy he met Zorin and agreed to go to Libya along with his fighters. “We met him, and he told us we were going to Libya with the security company [Wagner],” said Tareq from Syria. “He made a generous offer, $5,000 per month for a commander and $1,000 for a fighter. Of course, we agreed, because the financial situation is horrible in our area.”
  • amnesty for those who fled the draft and those against whom the regime kept a file for payback later.
  • Tareq and Mamtineh, and the men fighting for them, soon discovered they had been misled. They were lured with the assurance that they would merely guard oil installations in Haftar-controlled eastern Libya, but upon arrival at their training center in Homs, they found out that they were expected to fight and die for Haftar—and that the monthly salary would be much lower, only about $200. “Another Russian general at the base in Homs, I didn’t know his name, read out the terms of the contract before all of us. It wasn’t what Zorin promised. We refused and asked to be sent back home,”
  • Libyan analysts say Syrians are already in eastern Libya strengthening Haftar’s defenses. Anas El Gomati, the founder and director of the first public policy think tank established in Tripoli, Libya, said that, while Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group led the offensive in Haftar’s yearlong attempt to conquer Tripoli, Syrians had been sent to back up the warlord in eastern Libya.
  • Mercenaries come at a cost, they don’t know the lay of the land, and are struggling to make ground in urban terrain
Ed Webb

Why Do People Flee During War? The Answer Is More Complicated Than You Think. - 0 views

  • When armed forces uproot people, the act tends to be characterized by journalists, politicians, and policymakers as ethnic cleansing. This suggests that the primary purpose is to expel or eliminate the targeted population. Strategic displacement takes different forms and can serve multiple purposes, from interdicting enemy supply lines to facilitating territorial annexation. What my research suggests, however, is that combatants, particularly state forces, often displace civilians to sort the targeted population—not to get rid of it.
  • This strategy mimics the use of strategic hamlets, regroupment centers, and so-called protected villages during civil wars in Burundi, Indonesia, the Philippines, Peru, Rwanda, Uganda, and Vietnam, where government forces ordered people living in conflict areas to relocate to particular locations. In addition to denying rebels access to the population, these methods were used to help counterinsurgents distinguish friend from foe while fighting shadowy guerrillas who hid among civilians. Areas outside relocation sites were transformed into free-fire zones where those remaining were assumed to be rebel fighters or supporters. The sites themselves served as instruments of identification. Occupants were screened and catalogued—making the population more “legible” to the state—and their movements were used as continuous indicators of their political loyalties.
  • “The good people were in the camps” and so “anyone found out of the camp was seen as a rebel or collaborator automatically.”
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  • A similar dynamic can be seen in Syria. Throughout the conflict, the government of Bashar al-Assad and its allies have engaged in a ferocious campaign to expel civilians from cities and towns controlled by Syrian rebels. These displacement tactics have undermined rebels’ ability to govern and deprived them of civilian support. But they have also been used to weed out those considered disloyal to the Assad regime. The government has sought to lure the displaced to its territories and employed civil registration, property claims, and other administrative procedures to screen returning refugees and IDPs. As part of evacuation and reconciliation agreements in areas retaken from opposition groups, the Assad regime has given residents a choice of moving to government areas or to other rebel-held parts of Syria. Electing the latter is seen as signaling allegiance to the opposition. Many of those who moved are now being relentlessly targeted by regime forces in Idlib province, the only remaining opposition stronghold. When I spoke to a defector from the Syrian army, he conveyed the logic through a chilling metaphor: “Think of a dumpster where you gather garbage to finally burn it.”
  • Viewing displacement as a sorting mechanism is essential to understanding the drivers and consequences of wartime migrations, and for improving efforts to manage them. The United Nations and international NGOs typically set up and manage displacement camps; provide food, shelter, health care, education, and other services; advocate on behalf of the displaced; and help governments adopt domestic policies on displacement-related issues. While this assistance has done much good, it has also raised the specter of moral hazard. It is one thing for the international community to assist those who flee to another country in order to ease the strain on refugee-hosting governments. It is quite another for it to shoulder the burden of displacement within a country on behalf of a government or nonstate actor that is directly responsible for the displacement in the first place. In Syria, for instance, the Assad regime has steered massive amounts of humanitarian assistance to areas it controls, which has helped the government lure IDPs and address some of their needs.
  • If humanitarian agencies show they are willing to offset the costs of uprooting civilians, they could perversely incentivize armed groups to engage in these practices. This is not hypothetical. There are multiple instances where international aid, while providing crucial life-saving assistance to people in conflict zones, has also enabled combatants to implement, sustain, or expand policies of forced displacement.
  • The widespread use of sorting displaced people demonstrates that fleeing in wartime can be perceived as a political act. But the presumption of guilt by location is often embraced by combatants and civilians alike, and not just in cases where displacement is used as a weapon of war. As Stephanie Schwartz argued in a previous article in Foreign Policy, post-conflict societies commonly experience hostility between people who fled during a conflict and those who stayed.
  • Conflict resolution and reconciliation efforts need to treat displacement and return as a political phenomenon, not just a humanitarian one
  • if combatants purposely compelled people to flee during the conflict, then victims will need greater security assurances to return, along with accountability mechanisms that recognize these violations and provide restitution and justice. Rarely are state or nonstate actors held responsible for displacement.
  • an international refugee system that is increasingly seen as feckless and disconnected from the realities of modern migration. That’s because in civil wars, civilians are valuable assets for armed groups. If people are given the ability to escape conflict-affected countries, then they are not compelled to “pick a side” through their movements. Armed groups are deprived of vulnerable recruits and propaganda pawns. Leaving the country may still be perceived as treachery, but at least crossing the border puts civilians beyond the reach of all warring parties and makes them eligible for international protection. Limiting the possibility of exit only stands to embolden combatants while forcing people to decide between bad options.
  • strategic value in enacting more generous asylum policies as a tool of conflict management
  • hostility toward immigrants and surges of nationalist sentiment have been accompanied by political leaders recognizing the advantages of welcoming refugees from other countries. A prominent example is the Cold War. For the United States, accepting emigres from the Soviet Union and allied countries was a foreign-policy priority meant to signal the discontents of communist rule and the relative merits of American values and institutions. Today, the refugee system is in desperate need of reform, which could gain some momentum if more emphasis is placed on articulating and promoting the strategic benefits of asylum and refugee resettlement.
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