The Century Foundation: “Aleppo’s Bitter Lessons”

New from me for The Century Foundation:

When opposition-held east Aleppo fell, it fell hard. Now Syria’s rebels and their backers have to piece together what happened and decide how to move forward.

Aleppo’s rebels were hobbled by their own factionalism and dysfunction, and jihadist hardliners have since keyed into these internal reasons for Aleppo’s fall. Yet the main reason rebels lost seems to have been that they were simply outmatched – facing down an assault from the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran that was unstoppable.

“I don’t think it’s really [rebels’] fault, primarily,” a diplomat told me. “They lost Aleppo. They were outgunned, and they didn’t get help. That’s a reality.”

“If they had done things perfectly, would they have held Aleppo?” the diplomat asked. “No. Would they have held it another month, maybe.”

After Aleppo, rebels have to reckon with that basic asymmetry. And as the regime and its allies train their fire elsewhere, rebels have to decide how much they’re willing to sacrifice in a losing battle.

“Aleppo’s Bitter Lessons”

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Ahmad Abazeid: “This is a jungle.”

Below I’ve translated a set of tweets from Syrian revolutionary writer-analyst Ahmad Abazeid, newly out of besieged east Aleppo and now in the Idlib-centric rebel-held north.

Abazeid’s tweets provide another glimpse of how Idlib is, by all accounts, a rough place.

It was rebel-held eastern Aleppo and its surrounding countryside that had been the locus of revolutionary civil society and non-jihadist “Free Syrian Army” rebels in Syria’s north. Now, with the conclusion of the Aleppo siege and the evacuation of many of east Aleppo’s rebels and civilians, the east Aleppo residents bussed out of the city have been dropped into “greater Idlib,” where they have to either navigate between or nestle under Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, people mysteriously turn up dead in rivers, and unaccountable, masked men have the run of the countryside.

Abazeid’s tweets:

“In only ten days, there have been kidnappings, robberies, assaults, and murders committed against the revolutionary factions (especially those that left Aleppo) that, if they had happened over a period of months, would have been a ‘breakdown of security.’ This is a jungle.

“The factions that have been attacked over the previous days: al-Jabhah al-Shamiyyah, al-Sultan Mourad, Tajammu’ Fastaqim, Jeish Idlib al-Hurr, Jeish al-Mujahideen, Feilaq al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham.

“In the jungle of the ‘liberated’ Syrian north, you find the slogans ‘shari’ah’ and ‘teaching aqidah (creed)’ on every wall, as if our people are the infidels of Qureish. Meanwhile, on the ground, it’s the shari’ah of force that rules everyone.

“These fatwas from men of unknown provenance and the sea of filth from unknown users on Twitter are inseparable from the crimes of those with unknown faces [i.e., masked men] on the ground. We aren’t absolving the regime, but we won’t hide from our reality to accuse it exclusively.

“Before we left [Aleppo], I spent nearly a year in which I didn’t sleep a single night outside Aleppo. Truthfully, we only felt safe in the most dangerous city on earth, where bombing and battles were daily weather.

“Aleppo taught us – with the harshest lesson possible – the meaning of the verse, ‘And fear a trial that afflicts not only those among you who have done wrong’ [8:29]. When we don’t deter the unjust and fools control our fate, the ship will sink.

“Whoever doesn’t protect his weapon doesn’t deserve it. These weapons are our dignity, and our pride. Timidly granting criminal gangs the weapons of our revolution, without resistance, is a betrayal of the people that entrusted you with this responsibility.”

Abazeid’s original Arabic tweets follow, below the jump: Continue reading

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The Century Foundation: “Syrian Opposition Politics—with a Lower-Case ‘p’”

New from me for The Century Foundation:

Meet the Nation Building Movement’s Anas Joudeh, whose work likely represents the far, least-tolerated edge of tolerated opposition politics under a resurgent Assad regime.

“Syrian Opposition Politics—with a Lower-Case ‘p’”

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War on the Rocks: “This Won’t Look Like Winning: A Sensible Path for Trump’s Syria Policy”

New from me at War on the Rocks:

Donald Trump’s election promises a substantive break with Barack Obama’s Syria policy, but he’s also challenged the policy community’s collective understanding of the Syrian war – and on some points, he’s been mostly correct.

His election and a possible American reorientation on Syria should prompt a larger rethinking of U.S. assumptions about the war, even as we have to be careful not to fall victim to a new and opposite set of dubious ideas.

“This Won’t Look Like Winning: A Sensible Path for Trump’s Syria Policy”

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The Century Foundation: “A Syria Policy for Trump’s America”

In a new report for The Century Foundation, I lay out a revised Syria strategy for the United States under President-elect Donald Trump:

U.S. Syria policy had been due for a major rethink, even before the election of Trump. America’s publicly articulated goals in Syria have been impossible for some time now, at least in their most optimistic formulation and using any realistic means.

We’re likely now to see a course change under President-elect Trump, who has prioritized more cooperative relations with Russia and expressed his desire to coordinate with Russia to fight jihadists in Syria. But even as the United States reevaluates its Syria posture and potentially disengages from the Syrian opposition, it must be careful not to overcorrect.

We need to be realistic about the limits of what America can achieve in Syria, whether as part of Obama’s old agenda or Trump’s likely new one. And we need to avoid overcommitting in the service of dubious ends.

I argue:

  • The Syrian opposition is a problematic partner, but the United States should not turn instead to the Assad regime. The idea is to extricate America from the Syrian war, not to join an escalation on behalf of the other side.
  • America should not walk away from the opposition (and U.S. allies) abruptly and without guaranteeing opposition partners some soft landing.
  • The United States should continue to fight Islamic State, but not so single-mindedly and recklessly that it endangers other key U.S. interests.
  • And America must continue to invest in Syrian civilian well-being, inside and outside Syria, both for the sake of those civilians and to mitigate the war’s long-term destabilizing impact on the Middle East and the world.
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The Century Foundation: “Keeping the Lights On in Rebel Idlib”

New from me, as part of The Century Foundation’s “Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings”: “Keeping the Lights On in Rebel Idlib.”

The brief is a dive into local governance in rebel-held Idlib province, where residents have attempted to fill the administrative void left by the Assad regime. In the process, Idlib’s governance and service sector has become another space for Idlibi civilians and Islamist and jihadist armed groups – which have developed their own service bodies – to compete for popular support and legitimacy, even as they work to keep foreign assistance coming and to keep Idlib livable in the middle of a civil war.

For more on “Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings,” a project documenting political change and transformation in a post-Spring Arab world, read Thanassis Cambanis’s introduction here:

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Foreign Policy: “Assad Will Talk, But He Won’t Negotiate”

New from me at Foreign Policy:

The Assad regime invited us into Damascus, in an apparent attempt to demonstrate its openness and appeal to Western opinion. But it mostly just showed us how it hadn’t changed – and that maybe it doesn’t know how.

Assad Will Talk, But He Won’t Negotiate


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