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Washington’s “priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out, says US ambassador to UN Nikki Haley

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Thursday that Washington’s “priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”

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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is interviewed Feb. 10, 2017, in Syria. With a changing reality on the ground Assad's ouster is no longer the focus of many Western and Arab governments, VOA

Syria, April 1, 2017: The battle to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be over — at least as far as the Trump administration is concerned.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Thursday that Washington’s “priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”

Haley’s remarks drew the ire of American lawmakers who have argued for a more robust U.S. effort to topple Assad. Republican Senator John McCain warned the Trump administration against making a “Faustian bargain” (a deal with the devil) with the Syrian government’s ally Russia.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham warned that taking the focus off Assad would be “the biggest mistake since President [Barack] Obama failed to act after drawing a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.”

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Later Friday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that the United States must accept the political reality that the future of Assad is up to the Syrian people.

“With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now,” he said. Spicer added that the Untied States lost “a lot of opportunity” during the last administration to change the situation with Assad. He did not elaborate.

Spicer would not comment on whether Assad should step down, saying it is a decision for the Syrian people alone. He said the foremost priority for the United States in Syria right now is the defeat of Islamic State militants.

Some Middle East analysts say similar comments by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week in Ankara also signal regime change is off the table. These analysts argue the recent remarks merely reflect the reality on the ground — that Assad’s survival after a brutal six-year-long conflict appears assured.

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Expected move

Many analysts had been expecting President Donald Trump’s administration to inch closer to a much more explicit shift in U.S. policy in Syria — one exclusively focused on the war against the Islamic State. Some analysts say the administration has little alternative now. They trace the policy reversal to the Obama administration, which in its last months also was signaling an acceptance of Assad staying in power, if only in the short-term during a political transition.

In a roundtable discussion this week on the future of the conflict on Syria, analyst Sam Heller of The Century Foundation, a U.S. policy research institute, argued that not much is left of the revolutionary opposition.

“When we say that the Assad regime has ‘won the war,’ we mean it’s achieved a strategic victory in Syria’s central civil conflict: the war between, in approximate terms, the regime and its mixed revolutionary-Islamist opposition in western Syria,” he said.

According to Heller, much of the main armed opposition to Assad has been neutralized and diverted away from the insurgency against the government by regional powers who are using rebel militias for their own security projects in war-torn Syria. That includes the Turks, who have carved out a sweep of territory in northern Syria to keep Islamic State militants away from its border and block Syrian Kurds from uniting Kurdish-majority cantons.

The U.S. has persuaded other Arab Sunni and Turkmen militias to throw in their lot with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and to focus on battling the Islamic State. The U.S. is generally working with splinter groups or rejects from the main anti-Assad rebel force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Rebel militias not participating in the Turkish intervention or who are not aligned with the fight against the Islamic State have seen foreign backers cut their arms supplies.

Heller says the future for FSA militias is bleak.

“The choice they now seem to face is between being reincorporated into the extant Syrian state [Assad’s state], serving in a Turkish or Jordanian cross-border protectorate, or indefinite exile. Or they can die with the jihadists, which is also an option. They can and will continue to fight, but they’ll likely be doing so alone, against insurmountable odds, and at a terrible cost to their civilian families and communities.”

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Tahrir al-Sham group takes lead

Most recent breakout assaults by rebel militias have been led by a former al-Qaida affiliate. It has joined with other Islamist rebel militias in a group called Tahrir al-Sham, and last week assaulted the Syrian town of Hama, managing to advance to within 10 kilometers of its center. Other insurgents also recently launched an offensive on government-held areas in the Damascus suburb of Jobar.

But there’s little prospect the Hama and Jobar offensives can be translated into major threats to the government, which was bolstered when Russia’s military intervened to back Assad more than a year ago. In December, the government, backed by Iranian and Shi’ite militias, recaptured the rebel redoubt in the eastern half of Aleppo.

Since December, Syrian government forces and foreign fighters have been pressing their military edge, slowly winning back rebel-held areas near the Syrian capital and squeezing Tahrir al-Sham and other Islamist militias in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, to the west of Aleppo.

Several military observers from European governments told VOA in recent weeks that they see no way that opposition forces can threaten Assad’s hold over the main western and coastal cities of Syria.

They do expect fighting to continue, though, led by Tahrir al-Sham.

Aron Lund, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research institute in Washington, agrees with those assessments. At The Century Foundation’s roundtable, he predicted: “There will be fighting for a long time and Syria may remain a failed state in many respects, and, of course, some unscripted event could still turn all assumptions upside down. But as things stand, Assad is definitely over some sort of threshold.”

Lund says Western and Arab governments that had sought regime change in Syria have now mostly accepted that their side has no path to victory.

“They are coming to terms with the fact that Assad is staying, while deciding to what extent they want to play spoilers. They’re not willing to say it publicly, but it’s happening,” Lund said. (VOA)

Next Story

France Family Wants to Repatriate their Grandchildren from Syria

“The question is whether to repatriate jihadists who left France, burned their French passports, and headed off to associate with Islamist fundamentalists, to become barbarians and strike our country".

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FILE - The families of missing British girls Amira Abase and Shamima Begum pose for a picture after being interviewed by the media in central London, Feb. 22, 2015. VOA

In northern France, Lydie and Patrice Maninchedda have been waging an uphill battle, sustained by local media, to repatriate their three grandchildren from Syria. They have never met the children, ranging from one to five years. Nor has the couple seen their daughter, Julie, since she left with her then-husband to join the Islamic State group in 2014.

Then came an anonymous message last month that Julie was dead — and the grandchildren, now orphans, were detained in a Kurdish camp for internally displaced people.

“It is overwhelming to find them,” Patrice Maninchedda told France Bleu radio, of the three, who are considered by law to be French nationals. “Like all grandparents, we want to see our grandchildren. They need to be reintegrated into a normal life and family.”

The Maninchedda’s hopes may be realized sooner rather than later. The planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria prompted the French government to announce it was considering repatriating dozens of citizens now detained by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeastern part of the country.

While some are hardened jihadists or their wives, roughly three-quarters are children under the age of seven, according to French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet.

With the Islamic State group all but territorially vanquished in Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump urged European nations to repatriate captured fighters and put them on trial at home — a demand rejected for now by the French government, while Germany said doing so would be difficult.

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FILE – French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet leaves following the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, Oct. 17, 2018. VOA

“At this stage France is not responding to the demands” of Trump, Belloubet told France 2 television, saying Paris would consider repatriating French IS fighters on a case-by-case basis. But reports suggest French officials have agreed to repatriate French orphans now in Syria, although those children who are still with their parents are more problematic, and would need parental consent to be separated.

Similar dilemmas are faced elsewhere in Western Europe, from which nearly 6,000 nationals left to join IS ranks, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, at King’s College London. Many died in battle, and more than 1,700 have returned, it estimates.

Repatriating both the fighters and their children is politically explosive. Critics worry it will be difficult to prove in court crimes committed on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, and that the children raised under Islamic State occupation could grow into dangerous adults.

Shaping public opinion too are the 2015 Paris attacks, which involved some returnee fighters.

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France’s far-right leader Marine le Pen joins many other politicians in opposing the return of French fighters, saying they should be judged in Syria and Iraq. VOA

“The question is whether to repatriate jihadists who left France, burned their French passports, and headed off to associate with Islamist fundamentalists, to become barbarians and strike our country,” said far-right leader Marine Le Pen in an interview.

“And the answer is no,” she added of the adults. “They should be judged in the places where they committed the atrocities. It’s the very least one can do, out of respect for the victims.”

Le Pen did not offer an opinion on the fate of the minors, describing them simply as “instrumentalized.”

Yet by not taking action, others argue, France risks having jihadis and their families disappear into a turmoil-torn region, posing a potentially serious security threat later on.

Even for children, the challenges of repatriation are massive, experts say. While some may have been sheltered from the fighting, many others are likely brainwashed by jihadi ideology. Still others may have witnessed or participated in horrific acts. Their background may come to haunt them — and France — later on.

“They are children, they aren’t guilty of crimes committed by their parents. And from a humanitarian point of view we must welcome and take care of them,” said sociologist Gerald Brunner, of the Jean Jaures Foundation — even as he warned that dealing with the returnees would be “difficult.”

‘We’d be right to imagine the worst, that they could commit a terrorist act on our territory,” Brunner said, adding, “authorities cannot avoid posing this question.”

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Islamist expert Farhad Khosrokhavar says France and other European governments have been slow to act on repatriating children of jihadist fighters. VOA

Until recently, the preferred option was to do very little for the minors — unless their families pressed French authorities for action, said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist and expert on radical Islam.

“The French government—and one can generalize this to most of the Europeans—they don’t want them back,” Khosrokhavar said, in an interview last year. “Because they are afraid of them, and they know there will be problems.”

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FILE – Renu Begum, eldest sister of missing sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, Feb. 22, 2015. VOA

Today, repatriation claims involving children are growing, adding to the pressure. In Britain, 19-year-old Shamima Begum is asking to return home with her newborn, four years after joining Islamic State in Syria as a schoolgirl.

In neighboring Belgium, a court ordered the government in December to repatriate half-a-dozen children and their mothers detained by Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

In France, fewer than 70 children had returned as of a year ago out of up to 700 in Iraq and Syria, according to different estimates. Most are under the responsibility of a court outside Paris. Some are placed in foster care; others taken in by their families. Those over 13 who participated in fighting can be detained, according to media reports.

Now, as France is pressed to bring back the rest, experts say there is no easy answer or blueprint to deal with them.

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“The ideal would be to give them the opportunity to live with their mother and of course follow them psychologically and institutionally in order to deradicalize the mother,” said Khosrokhavar, the Islamist expert. But so far, there seems little appetite for repatriating parents en masse.

Sociologist Brunner suggests applying other examples of indoctrination — including children brainwashed by religious cults — in dealing with the IS minors.

“Nobody is ready for this kind of situation,” he said. “Nobody knows exactly what to do. The only we know is we can’t do nothing.” (VOA)