A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by US special forces, looks out from a building at the frontline in Raqqa on October 16, 2017 (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty)

The future of Syria is a negotiated save heaven in the north, and beware becoming Lebanon

Interview

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.

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Crac des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle in Syria that was built in 1031, is included in the travel package offered by French tour operator Clio against the French government's advice. (Manuel Cohen / AFP)

Syria’s war news you missed - February 18, 2019

1. "It provides an opportunity for Russia." General Joseph Votel, the top US commander in the Middle East leading the war against the Islamic State, disagrees with President Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria. It is because of the same decision that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, resigned. In an interview to CNN, General Votel explained why he disagrees with the president.

2. "Autonomy means the partition of Syria. We have no way to partition." Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected the suggestion that Damascus was willing to do a deal that would hand the Kurds some measure of autonomy, Reuters reported.

3. A French tour operator is offering a trip to Syria for next April. The group, called Clio, claims the upcoming tour is fully booked, but the French government is advising against and said the tour operator is liable if anything happens to its clients, French national radio France Info reported [in French].

(L to R) French Major of the Wagram Task Force Francois-Regis Legrier explains military positions on a sand map to French Defence Minister Florence Parly and French General Jean-Marc Vigilant at a French artillery forward operating base (FOB) near al-Qaim in Iraq's western Anbar province opposite Syria's Deir Ezzor region, a few kilometres away from the last scrap of territory held by IS, on February 9, 2019. (Daphné BENOIT/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria’s war news you missed - February 17, 2019

1. House Democrats take steps to obtain notes from Trump-Putin meetings. The contents of President Trump's one-on-one meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin will be one of many investigative priorities for House Democrats, Axios said. The contents of these meetings includes what Trump and Putin discussed on Syria during their private meeting in Helsinki last July.

2. U.S. commander warns Syria's Kurds and SDF allies on aligning with President Bashar al-Assad. The United States will have to sever its military assistance to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling Islamic State if the fighters partner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russia, Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said on Sunday, Reuters reported.

3. Top French officer criticize anti-ISIS coalition in Syria. "We have in no way won the war because we lack a realistic and lasting policy and an adequate strategy," Colonel Francois-Regis Legrier (pictured in the headline image), who has been in charge of directing French artillery supporting Kurdish-led groups in Syria, said. Legrier also said the coalition's focus on limiting its own risks had greatly increased the death toll among civilians and the levels of destruction, Reuters reported.

A fighter from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), part of the of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), stands at a position near the battered Islamic State-held holdout of Baghouz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor on February 12, 2019. (Delil souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (not seen) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (not seen) hold a joint press conference following the 4th trilateral summit on Syria on February 14, 2019 in Sochi, Russia. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Syria’s war news you missed - February 14, 2019

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.

Syrian Pound exchange rates at a currency exchange office in Damascus, Syria. August 12, 2015 (Flavius Mihaies/Shout News)

Syria sanctions bill passes Senate but stalls over anti-BDS

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.

  • Appropriations process. Feasible, but depends on a divided Congress and the president once again negotiating an agreement on what traditionally ends bring an omnibus spending package. Typically a compromise is reached where It could become law by the end of year - avoiding a government shutdown. However, as the current standoff between President Trump and Congress has proven, we could see a redux and have another shutdown where disagreements are not resolved until some point in 2020.
  • Defense authorization bill: Sanctions would be added to the defense authorization spending bill. Last year's authorization under a GOP-controlled Congress was passed and enacted in August 2018, a record time. In the absence of potential jurisdictional roadblocks, sanctions could become law by November or December of this year.

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.

Go deeper:

Interview: What's next on the latest U.S. sanctions against Syria?

Drawing depicting French jihadists and family's return to France. February 9, 2019 (Severin Millet/Le Monde)

Syria’s war news you missed - February 11, 2019


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.

U.S. Consulate General in St Petersburg, Russia. March 29, 2018 (Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)

Interview: “America is a wounded elephant geopolitically”

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."

Oil wheel near the Faish Khabur border crossing with Iraq, northern Syria. June 10, 2018 (Flavius Mihaies/Shout News)

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.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." February 6, 2019 (MSNBC)

Top 3 Syria war news - February 6, 2019

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.

President Reagan meeting with Afghan Freedom Fighters to discuss Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan, February 2, 1983 (Ronald Reagan Library)

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.