1. Syria talks in Sochi, Russia. The meeting was the first between the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran since U.S. President Donald Trump announced in December that he'll pull troops out of Syria. The Sochi peace talks are part of the Astana process, which has gradually come to eclipse a UN-sponsored negotiations framework known as the Geneva process.
2. In Sochi, Russian president Vladimir Putin pushed back against Turkey's demand for a buffer zone inside northern Syria to counter U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in the region. Russia and Iran instead stressed the need for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government to have control over the territory, Reuters reported.
3. Turkey remains a key trade partner with Syria. The value and flows of trade between Syria and Turkey remained unchanged last year, The Syria Report said, looking at Turkish official statistics. In 2011, Turkey announced wide-ranging economic and financial sanctions against Syria on in response to the Syrian government's continuing military crackdown on protests.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation last Thursday that would impose economic and financial pressure on the regime of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad and send it to the House, where it stalled over the Combating BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) provision. The House last month passed Syria sanctions unanimously without a BDS provision.
Why it matters: "S.1, Strengthening America's Security in the Middle East Act of 2019" passed with strong bipartisan support, but senior House Democrats have raised the same First Amendment concerns on the BDS language as their Senate colleagues who voted against it. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while not publicly stating her views on the bill, appears to share the position that the bill's anti-BDS provisions are a poison pill, Chad Brand, a government relations officer for the Syrian American Council, told Shout News. The legislation could remain stalled in the House.
What to watch: The Syria sanctions that the House initially approved (the "Caesar Bill") could take two alternative legislative routes in order to become law, Mr. Brand said.
The defense authorization route is faster, Mr. Brand said, but expects that jurisdictional issues among key committee panels that oversee defense and foreign policy policy might not agree to include the Syria sanctions on the grounds that they are non-germane to the legislation. He noted that the conference report to FY 2019 defense authorization bill did not include targeted sanctions against Iranian-backed militias fighting in Syria and Iraq that were approved to the House-passed version of the bill.
France details plan to repatriate its citizens who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State, Le Monde reported. The operation is to be international in nature, but not necessarily through the United Nations, and coordinated with the U.S. on logistics as to provide international law guarantees to the jihadists and their family.
U.S.'s Syria ally supplies oil to Assad's brokers. 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. Oil revenue could be a first indication of the economic viability of northern Syria under SDF control and a good governance test (Shout News analysis).
2020 Democrats align with Trump on Syria and Afghanistan, the New York Times reported, using as evidence Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's vote—along with most of the other 2020 Democratic contenders—not to denounce President Trump's plan to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan. Yet, Senator Amy Klobuchar, who entered the 2020 presidential race yesterday, voted for the bill.
A German academic who wished to remain anonymous and volunteered with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State told Shout News in an interview that America does not have a functioning foreign policy and warned that it has national security consequences.
Highlights from the interview:
Foreign policy capacity. "The U.S. does not have the capacity for any sustainable foreign policy at the moment. It is trying to survive instead of doing politics. At least this is how it looks like from the outside."
Foreign policy continuity. "Certain things need to continue [from one administration to the other] and no one in the current administration has the understanding how to, there is no one able to respond to day to day politics."
What I hear is that U.S. diplomats, military personnel, those responsible for negotiations and communication between parties on the ground sit there and wait for orders and directions they don't receive.
National security consequences. "The next war is brewing right now, next conflicts are getting in motion, but no one is interested. It is an enormous scandal and not in the interest of the U.S."
"No one is stopping Russia. That we are worried about Europe's eastern border should tell you something. It used to be completely controlled by the U.S. There are similar developments all over Africa."
Taking America seriously. "You need a well functioning secure and stable U.S. administration in order to stand up to a NATO partner and regional bully like Turkey. Otherwise, look at what happened. The Turks don't take America seriously. How can a U.S. president let a foreign president insult him publicly and not respond [President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey threatened to "slap" President Trump in March 2018]. It is embarrassing."
"Commentators don't understand the implications of a weak administration and president, of not being sure if the president will still be in office in the next six months. It might be entertaining for American talk shows, but it signal that it is geopolitically weak, plowing through."
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?
What to watch:
1. Election 2020: Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard who is running for United States president in 2020 as a Democrat said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not an enemy of the U.S. but is not a good person on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
2. Ilham Ahmad, a leader of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Syrian U.S. military partner in the fight against the Islamic State, extended her trip to Washington. So far, her visit has not involved an invitation to visit the White House and meet with the president of the United States (Shout! News).
3. President Trump dodged a question on his plan to withdraw troops from Syria on CBS News "Face the Nation" last Sunday. Host Margaret Brennan asked the president about his contradiction telegraphing his retreat from Syria but criticizing Obama for doing so in Iraq.
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.
1. Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 68-23 to advance a measure opposing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan. The bipartisan driven measure declared that the Islamic State remains a serious threat in both countries, Axios reported.
2. U.S. court finds Assad regime liable for journalist's death in Syria. The Washington, D.C. District Court ruled against the Syrian government for the extrajudicial killing of American journalist Marie Colvin under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act targeting state sponsors of terrorism, The Guardian reported.
3. A UNHCR report out last week shows that an average of six refugees and migrants die every day attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. In total, 139,300 arrived in Europe in 2018 – the lowest number in five years. But the rate of deaths rose sharply as European policies shifted toward returns to Libya and criminalization or restrictions on search-and-rescue boats.
Farouk Belal, an American citizen Syrian-Kurd in Washington, DC, has been an opponent to the regime of Bashar al Assad from the outset of the revolution, in 2011, joining early street protests demanding democratic reforms.
Mr. Belal told Shout! News in an interview that there is not going to be a lasting peace in Syria as long as President al Assad is in power and warned of Syria following the path of Lebanon, where the ending of the 1980s civil war did not include a transitional justice process and is the reason behind the absence of a stable, functioning government.
"There is no way that the world normalizes relationship with Assad. In the U.S., inside and outside Syria the revolution continues. Our main demand when we came out on the streets was asking for freedom. We did not ask for ISIS, all these killings."
Why it matters: Recent news have featured a resurgent Syrian regime moving forward with normalization--e.g. some Arab countries re-opening their embassy in Damascus--and President al Assad military's territorial gains. Yet, Mr. Belal's position demonstrates that the demands that brought him and other Syrians to the streets are still very much alive eight years after the beginning of the conflict.
Mr. Belal told Shout! News about his vision for the future of Syria.
Syria's conflict resolution should involve a series of steps aimed at bringing President al Assad to the negotiation table in order to find a political solution followed by justice and accountability for all war crimes under the umbrella of he United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.
The starting point is to bring together the three main players in Syria now. All are foreign, "it is not a Syrian war anymore," Mr. Belal said. The US, Russia and Turkey should come to the table and find a solution, at least find an alternative solution, implemented in northern Syria, from Idlib to Afrin, Jarablus to the Euphrates, in an area currently under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, President al Assad military, Turkey and Islamic militias. It should also involve eliminating the jihadist group al Qaeda.
A stable region in the north will become a safe haven for the Syrians who choose to return voluntary and a model for Syrians who have been hoping and fighting for democratic reforms for the past eight years, Mr. Belal said.
It will require the United States and Turkey putting pressure on Russia to bring President al Assad to the negotiation table.