War on the Rocks: “What an Unfolding Humanitarian Disaster in a U.S.-Protected Enclave Tells Us About American Strategy in Syria”

New from me today on War on the Rocks:

“What an Unfolding Humanitarian Disaster in a U.S.-Protected Enclave Tells Us About American Strategy in Syria”

The American base in Tanaf, in Syria’s southeastern desert, has taken on outsized political import. It was originally meant to be a staging ground for a southern prong of the counter-ISIS military campaign. Then, for a brief, overheated moment, it was supposedly where America would block an Iranian “land bridge.” Now it is a symbol of Washington’s refusal to yield to Syrian, Iranian, and Russia pressure and, in theory, key leverage on Damascus and its allies.

But on the ground – below the cloud of geopolitical intrigue and the U.S. military’s defense of Tanaf – the base is tangled up with the Rukban camp. Rukban is an improvised, squalid settlement between the earth berms marking the Syrian and Jordanian border that is home to 50,000 displaced people, among them the families of America’s local Syrian partners. The “deconfliction” zone around Tanaf is all that protects Rukban from a Syrian regime advance.

The United States has taken ownership of the Tanaf zone, including Rukban. And Rukban’s residents are miserable and hungry. The United States and its allies have been unable to convince the Jordanians to allow a new delivery of assistance to Rukban’s residents, just over the border berm from Jordan. Now America has to appeal for a cross-line aid delivery via Damascus, pending the approval of a regime that has weaponized humanitarian access.

The whole thing is a farce.

Rukban is an embarrassment, as well as a lesson in America’s ability to bend Syria and the region to its strategic ambitions. Before Washington wants to start marshaling its allies towards big geopolitical ends, it should start by convincing Jordan to allow a crane drop of tarps, blankets, and food into Rukban.

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World Politics Review: “What Will a Post-ISIS Political Order in Syria Actually Look Like?”

New from me for World Politics Review:

“What Will a Post-ISIS Political Order in Syria Actually Look Like?”

The United States and its Coalition allies never had a real political vision for a post-ISIS Syria. Now the country’s post-ISIS political order will be defined by the ground reality of how, militarily, ISIS lost.

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The Century Foundation: “Saving America’s Syrian Ceasefire”

My latest for The Century Foundation:

“Saving America’s Syrian Ceasefire”

I went to Jordan in September to get a sense of one of America’s last major policy efforts in Syria: the “de-escalation” agreement covering Syria’s southwest. The de-escalation is the product of months of trilateral negotiations between the United States, Russia, and Jordan. So far it has yielded a clear reduction in violence – but its future is uncertain.

Beyond immediate practical steps like a ceasefire and, potentially, the reopening of a key border crossing with Jordan, the agreement seems not to outline any real future or political vision for Syria’s south – no one knows what comes next, and the mood in Amman is uneasy. Meanwhile, a separate U.S. government decision to cut off arms and salaries to southern rebels late this year threatens to destabilize the de-escalation. The move raises more questions about U.S. commitment to the south and its neighboring allies’ security.

The de-escalation seems worth saving, but it’s going to mean more work. It’s going to require the sort of forward-looking institutional groundwork that positions the south for successful reintegration into the Syrian state – not just dissolution and piecemeal “reconciliation” by the regime. And in the meantime, someone has to step in pay these fighters’ salaries, or the south’s going to go haywire.

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Tahrir al-Sham official on Turkey’s intervention to implement Astana: “That’s not the reality.”

Below is a translation of a 13 October Telegram post by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (previously Jabhat al-Nusrah) media official Muhammad Nazzal (“Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi”).

This post represents the purest distillation I’ve seen of how Hayat Tahrir al-Sham seems to be justifying the limited entrance of Turkish forces in the northern Idlib/western Aleppo countryside, including the various pragmatic considerations at work and the mutually agreed-upon, explicit conditions of the Turkish presence.

What Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has agreed to, per Nazzal and other prominent Tahrir al-Sham figures, would seem not to satisfy the expected terms of a tripartite Turkish-Iranian-Russian agreement in Astana. Nazzal is emphatic that Turkey is taking up positions opposite the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin, an enclave north of the insurgent-held northwest, and not deploying further south to police the line of contact between Tahrir al-Sham and the Assad regime. It’s tough to imagine how this would address the concerns of Turkey’s co-guarantors in Astana – unless there is another big shoe to drop, one these Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leaders don’t know about or won’t acknowledge. Nazzal’s contention is that when the Turks claim to be implementing the Astana de-escalation, they’re basically just fudging it.

These sorts of claims from Tahrir al-Sham only raise more questions about a Turkish intervention that is, frankly, bizarre. For a NATO member state to enter Syria with an armed escort from a sort-of al-Qaeda affiliate is, um, non-standard. It currently seems impossible to say how far Turkey’s intervention will go, or where it will end. Maybe Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani has deceived his own rank-and-file about the scope of his agreement with Turkey, or maybe Turkey plans to unilaterally amend or abrogate the terms of the agreement it’s reached with Tahrir al-Sham. If the deal between Turkey and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is less explicit or mutually understood than Nazzal says, then an armed showdown between the two is likely on the way, whatever the Turkish government has claimed publicly about a non-combat observer mission.

And if Turkey and Tahrir al-Sham turn on each other and this does get violent, then – as Nazzal makes clear at the start – Tahrir al-Sham has options.

Translation and original post follow, below the jump.

Continue reading

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Foreign Affairs: “Don’t Fund Syria’s Reconstruction”

New from me from for Foreign Affairs:

“Don’t Fund Syria’s Reconstruction”

As the regime of Bashar al-Assad draws closer to a victory on the battlefield, domestic Syrian and international attention has turned to the next fight – the terms of Syrian reconstruction. The opposition’s Western backers have supposed that reconstruction funds are their last useful means of extracting concessions from the regime, while experts have theorized how reconstruction efforts can be insulated from the politics of re-legitimizing Assad.

My take – well, I guess it’s in the article title.

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المدن: “مسألة البادية وانهاء الجيش الحر”

مقالتي الأولى لصحيفة “المدن”، حول معارك البادية والموقف الأمريكي:

“مسألة البادية وانهاء الجيش الحر”


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حلب اليوم، “سورية في أسبوع”: “هل تغيرت أولويات الغرب في سورية؟ أم كانت مواقفه السابقة مجرد متاجرة سياسية؟”

مشاركتي في برنامج “سورية في أسبوع” على قناة “حلب اليوم” حول أولويات الغرب في سوريا وآفاق القضية السورية:

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