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Syria Digest: December 23, 2020

(8 minute read)

Syria in the Nation's Capital

Caesar Act: On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced that the United States imposed sanctions on the Central Bank of Syria concurrent with requirements under the Caesar Act (P.L. 116-92). In a press release, the Department of the Treasury announced two high-level Assad regime officials and the nine businesses they own were subject to sanctions. In addition, the Department of State announced designations for four members of Asma al-Assad’s family and Syria Military Intelligence Commander General Kifah Moulhem.  

Omnibus Bill: Congress has passed a FY 2021 omnibus appropriations bill (HR 133) that includes funding for Syria. The bill provides $40 million in non-lethal stabilization aid that according to the joint explanatory statement is authorized to be used in Deir Ezzor. The bill includes $200 million for the Syria Train and Equip Program. The bill requires the Department of State prepare Iran Counter Influence programs that include assessing the impact of Iranian support of proxy groups in Syria. Additional language includes a ban on the U.S. operating any oil facilities in Syria, or providing funding that advances Iranian and Russian interests on the ground. A bipartisan group of Senators hailed the inclusion of legislation (S 712) that provides authorization to: impose sanctions on persons responsible for hostage-taking or unlawful detention abroad; establish a Special Envoy for Hostages; and require that the State Department review all cases of U.S. nationals detained abroad to determine and report to Congress on cases in which detention is unlawful.    

Global Fragility Strategy: The Department of State released a congressional-mandated report that outlines U.S. policy to prevent conflict and promote stability. The strategy outlines four goals that serve as a guide to United States’ efforts in addressing priority countries: prevention, stabilization, partnerships, and management. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegen announced the U.S. will prioritize at least five countries and regions and will implement this strategy over a ten-year time horizon without providing country names. Mandated by the Global Fragility Act (P.L. 116-94), the law allows the U.S. to list Syria among several priority countries that are at risk of becoming failed states.

Syria at the UN and Abroad

UNSC Briefing: UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen gave a preview of what to expect in the next round of negotiations of the constitutional reform committee. In a videoconference with members of the UN Security Council Pedersen said he will engage with the committee co-chairs before the next round of Geneva talks that will run from January 25 through the 29th. The objective of the meeting is to ensure that the constitutional committee moves from “preparing” a constitutional reform to “drafting” one. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock provided a ground assessment that reiterated the UN's latest findings that conditions in Syria have gotten worse due to growing humanitarian needs that are driven by increasing economic decay and the spread of COVID-19. The UN estimates the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance throughout the country is expected to rise by 1.9 million, reaching a total of 13 million people in 2021. 

Turkey Refugee Funding: The European Union announced last week it has signed the final contract to provide Turkey the last tranche of funds for Syrian refugees. The EU will provide eight contracts worth €780 million to meet the goal of €6 billion agreed to in March 2016. The projects will focus on improving migrant health, building municipal infrastructure, strengthening socio-economic support for refugees, and the creation of new employment opportunities for Syrians under Temporary Protection and local host communities.  

Syria Protests USCIF: Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari filed a complaint with the UN Security Council over a trip made by a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to northeast Syria. The letter condemns commissioner Nadine Maenza for meeting with Kurdish officials in Raqqa and Tabqah and holding a press conference. Maenza took to Twitter saying she was honored by the regime’s actions. The week-long visit, done as a private citizen, included meeting with Mazloum Abdi, the head of the Syrian Democratic Forces.  

Syria on the Ground

Regime Food Insecurity: The Assad regime is attempting to address continued shortages of wheat, Syria’s principal staple on two fronts. One is a propaganda campaign on the restoration of bakeries that were previously destroyed by pro-regime forces or by Russia. Most recently, Syria Direct detailed these activities and the regime hailing the reopening of a bakery in Halfaya in Hama Province. The second is through smuggling operations in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Recently it was reported that regime officials had ordered the al-Qatirji militia to smuggle out two trucks of wheat from SDF-held areas.    

YPG Border Clash: The Kurdistan Regional Government has accused the YPG of carrying out a cross-border attack against Peshmerga forces stationed along the Khabur River that separates Syria and Iraq. In a statement, President Masrour Barzani condemned what took place as a reckless, unprovoked attack that was repelled by the Peshmerga. Barzani called on the anti-ISIS Coalition to ensure the YPG does not carry out a repeat assault. However, the YPG disputed there was an attack. In response to the accusation, the group asserted that what occurred was “the result of a lack of communication and coordination between us and the relevant authorities and institutions in the Kurdistan Region.”      

ISIS Detainees: Earlier this week, the German Foreign Ministry announced the repatriation of 23 women and children held in the al-Hol detainee camp. In a statement, the justification for their return was on humanitarian grounds because some of the children were orphans and were sick. The operation was the result of several months of preparation and the German Foreign Ministry expressed appreciation to Finland for providing assistance. This development came as a Finnish delegation traveled to Syria and held meetings with members of the Syrian Democratic Council.

Humanitarian Work and Civil Society in Syria

We are proud to be highlighting the work of humanitarian and civil society groups both outside and within Syria that are striving for a free Syria. 

Hospital Opens In Idlib: The University of Idlib has opened the first university hospital in Northern Syria. The hospital will provide a facility for students to learn, and provide medical treatment for locals. The administration of al-Hawa crossing is financing the operational costs for the first five years.

Helmets for Hope: Six Michigan and California Students Organize for Syria chapters, a student-led initiative that organizes for the Syrian people, launched a fundraiser for the White Helmets. Help them reach their goal of 3,000 in their final campaign of the semester.

Analysis

The Arab Spring Let the People Shout, Not Whisper”: Omar Alshogre, a former detainee of Assad’s prisons, writes for Foreign Policy on the spirit of the Arab Spring that continues to inspire the people of the Middle East to stand up for democracy and human rights.

In Syria, Put Humanitarian Aid Ahead Of A Political Situation”: In a piece for War on the Rocks, Daphne McCurdy and Charles Thepaut argue that the next administration’s policy on Syria must include the depoliticization of humanitarian aid, or the world risks a further humanitarian tragedy and destabilization in the region.

Why Are Russians Paying for Bombing Schools in Syria”: Belkis Wille delves into the continued war crimes committed by Russia in Syria, finding that the repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure in populated areas were deliberate. 

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