The Century Foundation: “Geneva Peace Talks Won’t Solve Syria—So Why Have Them?”

New from me for The Century Foundation:

Geneva Peace Talks Won’t Solve Syria—So Why Have Them?

Ahead of the latest round of Syria’s Geneva talks, the most pressing question seems to be: Why?

That is, why is the Geneva process still ongoing? And why go?

In interviews, participants told me there are specific rationales to keep attending Geneva, as well as for the continued existence of Geneva itself. For them, Geneva is a vessel for a possible future deal, a platform for Syrian civil society, and – bluntly – – something other than rival, Russian-engineered Astana talks.

What Geneva talks are not, it seems, is a real chance to negotiate an end to the war.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

War on the Rocks: “The Signal in Syria’s Noise”

New from me on War on the Rocks:

The Signal in Syria’s Noise

Syria’s war isn’t about Syria’s hundreds or thousands of moving parts, it’s about how they fit together. Whether in terms of the real dynamics of power and control within the war’s opposing camps or the country’s more holistic strategic picture, it’s how the war’s elements relate to each other that tends to actually explain the conflict.

U.S. Syria policy needs to be calibrated to these second-order connections and linkages if the United States is going to selectively, productively engage in Syria – and then, ideally, leave.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Abu Mariya al-Qahtani: “So do you leave [your enemy] and just say, ‘In the end, we lose?'”

Below is a translated excerpt from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Abu Mariya al-Qahtani’s (Myassar al-Jubouri) May 30 appearance on the latest season of Abdullah al-Muheisini’s Ramadan interview show, Daimeh, in which Qahtani touches again on something that’s been on my mind: The line between defeatism and realism.

This is something on which Qahtani has also commented recently on his Telegram channel. Qahtani is Jabhat al-Nusrah’s former supreme religious official and its emir for the east, and now a leader in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Here Qahtani reacts indignantly to criticisms – articulated here by jihadist evangelist and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham religious official Muheisini, playing Devil’s advocate – of the jihadist movement and jihadists as, basically, born losers.

This critique is a sort of free-floating, universally applicable indictment of jihadism. But it also has special relevance in the Syrian context, where the prospects of the Syrian opposition generally and the jihadist-dominated northwest specifically seem bleak. Even relatively hard figures like Ahrar al-Sham-linked Aymen Haroush and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s own Hussam al-Atrash have lately been trying to think through unconventional, counterintuitive alternatives, casting about for something other than an increasingly lonely, fruitless battle against the Syrian regime.

Qahtani offers the jihadist rebuttal. The sentiment he articulates is a sort of mix of impulsive, stand-up-and-fight adamancy – the imperative of resistance, consequences be damned – and conviction that jihadists are fighting with God’s mandate.

He’s also informed by a particular reading of history, in which Islamist democrats have consistently met with betrayal and failure and – this part seems debatable – jihadists can point to victories against occupying enemies, as in Iraq. In this view, less extreme alternatives have been discredited, and jihadist militancy is the only sane option.

Basically, I disagree. Jihadists and jihadism as a global movement and intellectual trend seem impossible to comprehensively defeat. But I’m personally convinced that, ultimately, they can’t win and that they doom whatever group or cause they attach themselves to, whether that’s relief NGOs or the Syrian revolutionary opposition writ large.

But for what it’s worth, this is Abu Mariya’s counterargument.

Translation follows, beginning from 11:50 in the Daimeh episode. (And please note – I’m not hugely familiar with Iraqi, so apologies if I missed or inverted anything from Qahtani.) Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Century Foundation: “Syrian Jihadists Jeopardize Humanitarian Relief”

New from me for The Century Foundation, on the latest challenge to humanitarian assistance for civilians in Syria’s rebel-held northwest:

“Syrian Jihadists Jeopardize Humanitarian Relief”

Since the beginning of the year, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – the latest iteration of former Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah – has stepped up its attempts to intervene in assistance in ways that have already complicated aid efforts. Now the group’s declared intention to bring the northwest’s currency exchange and money transfer offices under its supervision has set off alarm bells among humanitarians, who depend on informal “hawalah” transfers to operate inside Syria.

Hundreds of thousands civilians depend on a relief regime for which the space is constricting in Turkey and – now, thanks to Tahrir al-Sham’s more overt interference – inside Syria, too.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Century Foundation: “Turkish Crackdown on Humanitarians Threatens Aid to Syrians”

New from me for The Century Foundation, on Turkish authorities’ rolling crackdown on international relief NGOs (INGOs):

“Turkish Crackdown on Humanitarians Threatens Aid to Syrians”

Humanitarians venerate principles of neutrality and independence, but their ostensibly apolitical work now seems to have gotten caught up in an Turkey’s own intensely charged politics.

Further INGO closures seem to pose a systemic threat to the relief effort in northern Syria, and it’s not clear whether Turkish institutions and local NGOs can fill the gap. If not, the interruption in humanitarian aid won’t affect everywhere equally. It’s likely to hit – surprise – Idlib province and Syria’s northwest, which never, ever catch a break.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Century Foundation: “Turkey’s ‘Turkey First’ Syria Policy”

New paper from me for The Century Foundation, on the evolution of Turkey’s agenda in north Syria and its implications for the Syrian opposition:

“Turkey’s ‘Turkey First’ Syria Policy”

More than ever before, the Syrian opposition depends on Turkey’s support – yet Turkey has never been more preoccupied with its own security ends, not fighting the Assad regime. The opposition’s future hinges on Turkey’s strategic success or failure, but Turkey, which has burned through most of its best options and damaged its key relationships, may itself be at an impasse.

Based on my last trip to Turkey – including Istanbul, Ankara, and along the southern border – I’ve tried to lay out the Turkish outlook as I understand it, and what it means for Syrians inside Turkey and just across the border inside the Syrian north.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

War on the Rocks: “Syria: A Journey Into the Unknown”

New from colleague Michael Wahid Hanna and I for War on the Rocks about the balancing act of U.S. intervention in Syria:

“Syria: A Journey Into the Unknown”

Last week’s U.S. missile strike, as it was executed and messaged, seems to have been meant to discourage the regime from further chemical weapons use – not to commit America to an unlimited escalation, or to some vague and impracticable goal of regime change.

But Trump Administration officials have already muddied this message in the media, and there’s a serious risk that America’s allies and adversaries could get confused. There’s also a danger that some forward-leaning politicians and talking heads may retroactively cast this strike as something more expansive and get the United States in trouble.

Michael and I argue the strike may yet achieve a defined, positive good – but the United States is going to have to resist the impulse to turn it into something that it’s not.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment