Syria: Tulsi Gabbard vs. the media

American media commentators criticized Presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)'s recent comments on President Bashar al Assad and the U.S. policy toward Syria.

What's happening: Congresswoman Gabbard refused to say whether she believed Assad was a war criminal during a CNN town hall. "I think that the evidence needs to be gathered, and as I have said before, if there is evidence that he has committed war crimes, he should be prosecuted as such," she told the host. The war in Syria has resulted in one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Critics from the media subsequently accused the Congresswoman of giving the benefit of the doubt to foreign autocrats, or worse. Washington Post reporter and CNN political analyst Josh Rogin casted her as "Assad's mouthpiece in Washington."

Between the lines: Rep. Gabbard's reluctance to condemn Syrian President Bashar Assad is a byproduct of her military service during the Iraq war, she explained. Tulsi Gabbard's position reflects a distrust of American military intervention and regime change and the justification provided that is prevalent amongst the American public, bruised by President George W. Bush administration's false statements to the American people and to the United Nations on the existence of weapons of mass destruction to launch a war in Iraq.

Why it matters: This argument between media personalities and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard could be interpreted as a disagreement about what standard of proof it takes to cast a foreign autocrat as a war criminal and back up military intervention abroad. Yet, it also raises questions on the role of journalism beyond telling the story. In what circumstances, if any, can journalists and the media arbitrate and the story?


Israel's Syria map

The map of today's Middle East as seen by Israel displays only two colors: red and black.

  • Red: Countries with an Islamic State presence.
  • Black: Iran-controlled countries or influence.

Why it matters: The map (above), presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the International Homeland Security Forum organized by the Israel Minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs last June, is an indication of Israel's perception of the Middle East as dominated by Iran's progress and influence and a metastasizing Islamic State, far from U.S. President Donald Trump's optimistic assessments about the jihadist group's defeat in recent months.

The state of play for Israel in Syria: The Syrian civil war was not a bad development for Israel, Haaretz reported, as the two main fighting sides, the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad and its jihadist opponents, deeply hated Israel. Yet, Iranian involvement and dominance in Syria as President al Assad gradually regained its control of the country and emerged as the winner of the eight years war have exacerbated Israel's concerns.


Is Venezuela the 'Syria of the Western Hemisphere’?

Last Sunday, a former Venezuelan diplomat, Isaias Medina, in an interview for Fox News claimed that is country was the "Syria of the Western Hemisphere."

Big picture: A U.S.-supported opposition, an entrenched leader backed by Moscow, violent street protests, desperate people scrambling across borders, and the United Nations blamed for a weak response. The ongoing crisis around the last presidential elections left incumbent Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó battling for the presidency of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and brought comparison with the conflict in Syria and its embattled leader Bashar al-Assad.

What they're saying:

  • Former Venezuelan diplomat Isaias Medina pointed to the same actors as in the Syrian conflict involved in in the current crisis in Venezuela, with Russia backing up the "dictatorship" of president Nicolás Maduro. The former diplomat to the United Nations who quit the Maduro government in protest over a year ago called for the use of force to remove president Maduro.
  • "[Nicolás] Maduro did not come to power in the same way that any of these dictators did. He did not lead a military coup, nor did he inherit a country run like a family estate from his father. He was democratically elected twice. There is little similarity between the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement, which Chavez founded and Maduro now represents, and the forces that backed and maintained these Arab tyrants in power. Chavismo is a democratic, left-wing, popular movement that has sought to invest the riches of the state to empower and uplift the poor," analyst Hussein Walid said on Al Jazeera.

Syrian Kurds' leader meets Congressional leaders

Ilham Ahmad, a leader of the Kurdish-led political party affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), ended an extended visit of Washington last week. Ms. Ahmad made the case for the U.S. to provide security guarantees once the troops withdrawal President Trump announced last December is complete.

Backdrop: President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria will leave Syria's Kurds and allied Arab and other groups, who fought and died against the Islamic State, vulnerable to an attack by Turkey and to President Bashar al-Assad's regime, intent on regaining full sovereignty over Syria.

While it is unclear what progress, if any, the Kurdish representative of the SDF, has made with the administration, Ms. Ahmad held meetings with numerous members of Congress to convey her message that the U.S. needs to protect the Kurds and their allies and offer guarantees before the troops withdrawal is complete. As a measure of her success, Ms. Ahmad's message was reflected in the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on February 5, before which the U.S. Central Command Commander General Joseph Votel testified. Senators on both sides emphasized the need to protects Syria's Kurds. Senator Rick Scott (R-Florida), for example, brought up the idea of establishing a no-fly zone over northern Syria.

A Washington-based member of Ms. Ahmad's team and organizer of her visit who wished to remain anonymous told Shout News that Ms. Ahmad met with more members of Congress and Congressional leaders than any previous visiting delegation from Syrian opposition groups.

Go deeper: Syria's Kurds long walk from political isolation


Syria’s Kurds oil deal with Assad tests governance

America's military ally in Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supplies oil to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: Oil revenue could be a first indication of the economic viability of northern Syria under SDF control and a good governance test: will the oil revenue benefit the territory and population groups under SDF control?


  • The oil deal should come as no surprise. The agreement between Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad government in Damascus on sharing oil revenues is more than a year old, Shout News learned.

What to watch:

  • The oil revenue sharing agreement with the Assad government may also provide insight on how northern Syria will shape following the announced U.S. military withdrawal.

Syria’s Kurds long walk from political isolation

Several years into the winning fight against the Islamic State, America's feet on the ground are making few to no progress in leveraging and extending the military recognition and support they received from the United States into political ground and capital.

The current visit to Washington of Ilham Ahmad, a leader of the Kurdish-led political party affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces, has so far not involved an invitation to visit the White House and meet with the president of the United States. Contrast with the White House's 1980s meetings with Afghan mujahideen.

This policy-or lack of thereof--reflects the ambivalence of America's engagement with its partner on Syria's ground in the fight against the Islamic State: Pentagon, yes; White House, no.

The big picture: Any formal acknowledgment of the Syrian Democratic Forces' political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council, would anger Turkey, the U.S. NATO ally, weary of any Kurdish political project and military strength in northern Syria.

What's next: The implementation of President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. It will leave Syria's Kurds and allied Arab and other groups, who fought and died in the winning battle against the Islamic State, vulnerable to an attack by Turkey.


First female U.S. servicemember killed in Syria dreamed of helping veterans with PTSD

  • Name: Shannon Mary Kent
  • Title: Chief Petty Officer, U.S. Navy
  • Age: 35-year-old
  • Start date in the military: December 11, 2003
  • War zone deployments: Five
  • Language: Arabic (four dialects), Spanish, French, Portuguese
  • Family: Husband and 18-month-old and 3-year-old sons
  • Place of birth: Pine Plains, N.Y.
  • Dream: Help fellow veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Kent was due to return to the U.S. by April and had hoped to attend a clinical psychology doctoral program.
The big picture: Shannon Kent, along with 18 others, including another U.S. servicemember, a Defense Intelligence Agency civilian and a Defense Department contractor, were killed in an Islamic State-claimed attack on January 16 in the city of Manbij. She was the first female U.S. servicemember killed in Syria since the U.S.-led coalition's campaign against the Islamic State began there in 2014. (Stars and Stripes)

The effect of U.S. sanctions against Syria

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation H.R.31 to increase economic and financial pressure on the regime of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad. The bill must now pass Senate and White House to become law, which is not a guaranteed outcome, Chad Brand, a government relations officer for the Syrian American Council, told me, "because many Democrats have raised concerns over a portion of the legislation dealing with efforts to dissuade divestment in Israel, known as BDS."

H.R.31 is not new. But it brings Congressional validation to the sanctions against Syria that the U.S. administration imposed at the beginning of the uprising in 2011 with measures tightening the not around the regime--freezing all Syrian government assets in the U.S.--but that were later expended to include trade and investment with Syria.

The U.S. Congress' backing comes late. After eight years, the sanctions have failed to achieve their goals: the end of the Syrian regime or the end of the regime's violence against civilians. Today, the Assad regime is still firmly in power. It has regained, not receded, its control of the country.

In fact, sanctions have had harmful effects on the Syrian population. The financial and economic embargo has, for example, made the many Syrian opponents to the regime of President al Assad in exile unable to support their family.

An opponent to the regime of President al Assad who found political asylum in America, speaking on condition of anonymity from his home in Washington, DC, said it was nearly impossible for him to send money to support friends and relatives in need in Syria. U.S. banks and other financial institutions will not process the transaction. Alternative and informal ways through middlemen in Jordan or Turkey are possible, but costly, uncertain and risk violating the U.S. embargo, he said.


What will the President do? ​

News media are pondering whether President Trump will reconsider his plan to withdraw troops from Syria following the suicide attack that killed four Americans, including two US soldiers, on patrol in Manbij yesterday. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

So far, U.S. officials said there were no plans to reverse Syria pullout decision, CNN reported.

The attack emboldened critics of President Trump's assertion that the Islamic State had been defeated in Syria, which was the reason invoked when he announced the troop withdrawal on December 19. They hope he will halt or reverse his decision.

"I hope the President will look long and hard at where he is headed in Syria," Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said.

But the President will certainly weigh in the possible consequences of any further American casualties in Syria. More American deaths will inevitably lead the public to demand that the troops be withdrawn.

What's next: In fact, yesterday's attack could paradoxically comfort President Trumps in his decision to pull out troops from Syria. And with the 2020 presidential election approaching, the President will not want to see more American casualties in the news.


Can an al Qaida-affiliated militia stay in control of Idlib?

Last week, al Qaida-affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militia network increased its control of the city and province of Idlib in northwestern Syria, at the expense of Turkish-backed fighters.

The Turkish government listed HTS as a terror group in August 2018 and last weekend carried out counter-terrorism operations against the group's alleged members in cities throughout Turkey, AFP reported.

Yes, but Abu Muhammad Al Julani, HTS leader, expressed his support for Turkey's military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Al Julani is a U.S. government wanted terrorist.

"HTS can not afford losing Idlib despite their in-fights with other groups. The only side that can protect them at this point will be Turkey," says Yousif Ismael from the Washington Kurdish Institute.

If HTS was to succeed and reposition Turkey from nemesis to potential tacit ally, it could make the task of reconquering Idlib harder for the Syrian regime and potentially give an al Qaida-affiliated group a say in Syria's future.

However, a preferred outcome for the Turkish state is for its allied armed groups to retain control of Idlib. The response to HTS' avances toward Turkey would therefore be a fin de non-recevoir.