News

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.

Interviews

Interview: The Syrian Army disappeared completely

Radwan Ziadeh, a scholar and human rights activist who founded the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies in Syria told Shout! News that only a liberal democracy can work for Syria and accommodate the country's various religious and ethnic communities.

Mr. Ziadeh is a critic of what he sees as the current Syrian Kurds leadership's "imagined identity." Syria's 8% Kurdish minority can't replicate northern Iraq's self-governance, where the Kurds make up one third of the country. From the late 1960s onward, Mr. Ziadeh said, Syria's Kurds went through persecution, indiscriminate Arabisation and an extreme policy that forbade the use of their language and the celebration of their holidays. Yet, they have significantly contributed to Syria's political life, notably by providing seven presidents and prime ministers. There will be no room for identity politics if Syria's Kurds are granted full rights.

Highlights from the interview:

  • The international community is lacking a common response to the 5 to 6 million Syrians displaced by the war. In this vacuum, recipient countries have come up with their own policy, which is adversely affected by the rise in populism and is beyond the capacity of any country.
  • Syrian refugees who return home are not safe. Out of the 400 refugees who recently returned to Syria from Germany, 35 are missing, for example. In addition, studies show that refugees settle in their host country past the third year.
  • Only a liberal democracy can accommodate the religious and ethnic communities that make up Syria, such as the Druzes, Armenians, Kurds and Assyrian Christians.
  • There won't be any successful mechanics the international community can design to attract the Syrian government to deal with the opposition. Why would the regime negotiate now when it never negotiated in hard time. There isn't any rationality in its approach anyway.
  • The Syrian Army disappeared completely. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, local militias leaders where given full power to suppress the opposition by any means and at any cost: barrel bombs, siege, crimes based on gender and ethnicity. This policy empowered local leaders. They have proven that they could suppress the opposition and will not accept to negotiate their power away.
  • The U.S. has become irrelevant in the resolution of the conflict. The kind of U.S. strategy required for Syria right now can't be developed by the Trump administration. The Secretary of State can't initiate a long-term strategy without the risk of being reversed or challenged by the president's tweets. As a result, the U.S. strategy continues to be in limbo, leaving the initiative to Russia and Iran.
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

The stakes of Syria's gas shortage

Syria's acute gas shortage is a stark sign of the daunting challenges the country will face in post-war reconstruction. A step up in economic sanctions imposed by the United States are partly responsible for the crisis.

Details: A Shout! News source in Damascus describes unprecedented scenes of cars and people waiting for petrol in lines spilling into the streets. The wait has been counted in days with drivers leaving their cars in the line at night to sleep and coming back to take their spot in the morning. This energy crisis is even worse than what the country experienced during the war, the source says.

The big picture: The U.S. dialed up its sanctions against Iran and the Syrian regime lost access to supply from the oil field captured from the Islamic State by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

  • The Trump administration aims to drive Iran's oil exports to zero by ending sanctions waivers on May 2. It also asked the Sissi government in Egypt to close the Suez Canal to Iranian oil tankers supplying Syria.
  • Concurrently, the Syrian regime lost access to oil supplied by the Islamic State when the jihadist group lost access to oil field captured by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by American and coalition's airpower. It is unclear whether the SDF will resume supply to Damascus, which the U.S. will most likely oppose.
  • The source in Damascus does not exclude the Syrian government's role in exacerbating the gas shortage, as a mean to enrich those close to the regime.

So far, Iran found a way around the increased economic sanctions by supplying oil from Iraq through trucks at the Baghouz border crossing, Shout! News learned. Freed from the Islamic State last month by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the village of Baghouz sits along the Euphrates River at the Iraqi border in eastern Syria. Iran is considering building a railroad on that supply route.

Questions? Comments? Feedback? Please email team@shout.news

Interviews

Interview: Trump left a tripwire military presence in Syria

Michael M. Gunter, a professor of political science who has written extensively on the Kurds told Shout News in an interview that the small remaining American military presence in Syria serves as a tripwire to deter any hostile intents toward the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in control of northeastern Syria.

Highlights from the interview:

  • "The U.S. will not leave the Kurds like Nixon and Kissinger did." American forces left in Syria serve as a deterrent should Turkey, Syrian regime forces and their Iranian allies backed by Russian airpower attempt to sweep through the territory that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control in northeastern Syria. A situation akin to the Cold War tripwire, where a small U.S. military force in Europe signaled America's commitment to an armed response to a Soviet attack.
  • A miscalculation in Turkey's high risk adventure in Syria could reverberate in President Erdoğan's presidency. While there are no serious contenders today, a Turkish military embarrassment by in Syria could create an opening and lead to President Erdoğan's removal from power.
  • "Syria's Kurds are much more noticeable today, and in a much better position than they were ten or twenty years ago, in a brighter position than they have ever been in modern times."
  • "Turkey is the power Syria's Kurds will need to get along with", despite a rhetoric that portrays Turkey "as evil" relayed by the media in the West. Historically, in the region nobody is 100% enemy with each other. Today's loss are tomorrow's wins. This long view of the conflict is largely absent in the media coverage of the war in Syria, but key to understand the conflict.

Go deeper: Syria's 2000 American troops: Strength is not in numbers

Exclusive

Syria's Assad is at risk of winning the war but losing the peace

As the Syrian civil war enters its ninth year, the news media is abuzz with stories about President Bashar al-Assad's victory on the battlefield. Yet, Syrians in government-controlled territory are increasingly expressing discontent with the president as living standards in the country continue to deteriorate even as the conflict winds down, the Washington Post reported.

Why it matters: Syria's president is at risk of winning the war but losing the peace if he fails to address a crippling shortage of fuel and electricity, provide jobs for the men returning from the front lines, and stabilize the Syrian currency. These challenges are compounded by inefficiencies and corruption amongst his government.

What Syrians are saying:

A Damascus-based worker for a non-governmental organization in an interview for Shout! News claimed that Syrians feel they have been betrayed by their government. They acknowledge, however, that the central government's control of territory outside the capital has weakened due to the partial devolution of state and military power to local authorities as a measure to fight the war. Local warlords emerged as a result.

"Military men don't behave like military anymore," the man said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Access to public services, as water, has been privatized by local strongmen and offered for a fee, he complained. He mentioned the example of a village he visited recently where public access to water is now run by someone close to the local strongman.

"Today's living standards are worse than during the war," but Western countries' sanctions against the Syrian regime are also responsible for their deterioration, the man said.

Programmatic propaganda in action in Syria's conflict: #OperationOliveBranch

The ongoing conflict in Syria blends conventional warfare with social media manipulation operations to influence public opinion, according to research.

The backstory: In January 2018, Turkey launched a military operation, code-named Olive Branch, in an around the northern Syria's city of Afrin.

Key findings: There is a social media manipulation dimension to Turkey's war in Syria. The Turkish state or pro-Turkish state elements sought to influence public opinion on the conflict, backing up the Turkish state message in a computer automated manner and orchestrated campaign connected with the Twitter hashtag #operationolivebranch.

The details: Research identified two ways the Turkish state or pro-Turkish state elements sought to influence audiences perception on Twitter.

  • Automated Twitter accounts that pose as journalist and political account: Two high-volume automated accounts, one that poses as a journalist/blogger @PelinCiftek, and the other a political profile AkPartiNet. At the time of the research these two accounts were tweeting at a rate of 465 tweets per day (on a seven day average) and sharing the same content from twenty two other accounts. These two accounts at first glance have nothing in common nor appear to be connected. Yet, research found they were operating in concert with the identical volume, timing and tweets themselves. These two accounts were created within one month of each other, and have nearly an identical tweet to like ratio, and following to follower ratio.
  • A network of automated amplifiers. These seemingly two unrelated (not directly connected) accounts are highly programmatic, and serve as the hubs of a tightly connected network that is amplifying the Turkish government message on the war in Afrin and other issues. This serves as an example of computation propaganda in action. Our research highlights how this network operates in a computer automated manner. Additional automated Twitter accounts amplifying the Turkish government's message about the war in Afrin and other issues. Research concluded these are likely government approved proxies or messengers (if not, it's highly improbable this content and network would exist) whose tweets are relayed by the two accounts above. At the time of the research it was noted that these ten accounts have a daily tweet average to classify them as cyborgs.

The big picture: Turkey's military operation in the conflict in Syria is the first invasion by Turkish ground forces into a sovereign nation since the Cyprus conflict in 1974.

Go deeper: A recent study by Oxford University shows widespread use of social media tactics by governments to shape public discourse and spread misinformation.

This analysis was first posted on Medium, including research findings and methodology.

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.