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Pope Francis to plan first ever papal trip to ​Iraq

Pope Francis said on Monday he wants to travel to Iraq next year, which would be the first ever papal trip there, Reuters reported.

Why it matters: Iraq's conflicts since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and the spillover from the Syrian war have led to a dramatic decrease in the country's Christian population.

What's happening: Iraqi Christians trace their presence back to Christianity's founding, and they preserve ancient customs including the Aramaic languages, which some Christian villages in Iraq and Syria still consider their mother tongues. Caught between repressive, apathetic or hostile governments and a Sunni Islamist insurgency, Iraq's Christians have suffered persecution, death and exile.

  • Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, there were 1.5 to 2 million Christians living in Iraq.
  • Today, the number is about 200,000, according to the documentary Christian in the Mirror, which premiered in Washington, DC on June 10, 2019.

Between the lines: The first papal trip to Iraq is all but certain, despite Pope Francis' willingness. In 2000, the late Pope John Paul wanted to visit the ancient Iraqi city of Ur, traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham. But negotiations with the government of then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein broke down and he was unable to go, Reuters reported.

What's next: If Iraqi Christians all but disappear, the loss for Iraq goes beyond the immediate loss of life to the identity of the country. Iraq will no longer be seen as a culturally diverse society, home to ancient religions and rich cultures.

Go deeper: Syrian Christian Perspectives on the War

Analysis

Exclusive: Syria war is driving Armenians back into exile

The Associated Press reported yesterday that Armenia sent a team of experts to Syria to help clear mines and provide medical assistance. That this team will be based in Aleppo in northern Syria is no coincidence. Before the war, Aleppo was home to 110,000 ethnic Armenians, one of the world's largest Armenian diasporas.

The big picture: About 22,000 ethnic Armenians have moved to Armenia since the start of the war in 2011. An additional 12,000 headed to Europe, America and Russia. Most are from Aleppo and some from the area controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, Alexandre Goodarzy, the chief of mission for Syria at SOS Chrétiens d'Orient, a non-governmental organization providing relief services in Syria, told Shout! News.

Details: The neighborhood where ethnic Armenians live in Aleppo is called Midan. While in the Syrian government-controlled western Allepo, during most of the war Midan sat on the front line with rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo. But the territorial demarcation of Midan was also disputed by Kurdish armed forces on the northwest side of the neighborhood and by al Qaida's affiliated Jabhat al Nusra on the northeast side. Therefore, Midan's inhabitants were being shelled by both Kurdish forces and Jabhat al Nusra.

As a result, from all the Christian communities in Aleppo, ethnic Armenians suffered the most from shelling and bombardments.

Why it matters: Ethnic Armenian numbers decreased considerably because of the war. Their presence in Aleppo dates back many centuries. But Midan's Armenians came as a result of the genocide that took place during last century's two World Wars. There presence increased Allepo's population by 25%.

The impact: Bringing ethnic Armenians back to Syria will be a challenge, Goodarzy from SOS Chrétiens d'Orient said. They will likely not return, and those in Armenia might not stay either, because of the catastrophic economy there, he said.

Analysis

U.S. to leave a residual military force in Syria

Trump administration's special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey claimed at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the president had never intended a comprehensive troop withdrawal, but instead to leave a residual force in northern Syria.

Why it matters: Jeffrey's statement is another departure from President Trump's order, announced in December, that all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria would leave, since their mission to destroy the Islamic State caliphate, in his view, had been achieved.

  • Jeffrey claimed since the U.S. could not get other members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State to agree to replace all of American forces in northeast Syria, the president decided to slow down the withdrawal and leave a residual force.
  • Yet, Jeffrey also said the administration wants other coalition members to bear the cost of stabilizing Syria: "We are shifting the focus from an exclusively American funded largely American boots on the ground to a more balanced one...It is burden sharing."

The big picture: Both the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to prevent its Kurdish partners from establishing an independent state in Syria. They also have had to take into consideration the position of Turkey, another ally in the fight against the Islamic State, for whom Syrian Kurdish forces are one and the same with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a group designated as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington. Nevertheless, Jeffrey said in the hearing that the United States would stand by its Kurdish allies in northern Syria, as evidenced by the residual U.S. force to remain in Syria.

Go deeper: Interview: Trump left a tripwire military presence in Syria

Analysis

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?

Analysis

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.

Analysis

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.
Analysis

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

Analysis

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?

Details:

  • 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.
Analysis

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.

Analysis

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)