Century Foundation Fellow Sam Heller is an American who lived in Syria to study Arabic for two years prior to the outbreak of the war there. He holds a master’s degree in Arabic from the University of Maryland College Park and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Yale University. He is currently based in Beirut.
He is I think the best analyst of the Syrian war who writes for the English-speaking public. He is not an Assad-friendly or supporter of the government, which puts me at odds with him in that respect, But but he hasn't let his opinion cloud his attempts to observe Syria as clearly as he can, and in November he did acknowledge at Foreign Policy ("Assad will talk, but he won't negotiate"):
And even as the Syrian government has reinforced a fundamentally oppressive political order, it is impossible to walk around Damascus and not notice the active participation of women in social and economic life, as well as the obvious diversity by sect and religiosity.On June 30 the American national security website War on the Rocks published Heller's big-picture analysis of how Syria's situation stands at present, The Signal in Syria's Noise, and the best course in Syria for America going forward. While the entire article is a 'must read' for anyone interested in Syria and America's engagement in the country, here I'll just feature Heller's closing observations:
Policymakers and analysts need to approach Syria with a realistic, nuanced view of how the country is organized – which, counterintuitively, is probably more comprehensible than any attempt to catalogue hundreds of armed factions. Understanding Syria is not about counting the number of enclaves, or rebel brigades, or pro-regime militias. It’s about understanding how they relate to each other, to the whole of the country, and to the historical course of the war.
More than half a decade into Syria’s war, America ought to be taking the long view and pursuing de-escalatory arrangements that allow America to safely exit. Those arrangements, if they are going to last, cannot be totally, defiantly at odds with Syria’s internal organization and logic.
Winding down sections of the war, and America’s involvement in them, is going to require Washington to engage Syria as it really fits together and operates – Syria as it is, not as we want it to be.Of course Heller's observations were made prior to the July 7 meeting between presidents Trump and Putin, but the decisions the two leaders made to de-escalate the Syrian conflict are in step with those observations and applauded by Assad's government.
Let's hope that going forward the American administration will be guided by the same picture Sam Heller has drawn of Syria -- Syria as it is, not as anyone wants it to be, not as any outside government tries to make it.