Syria Digest: October 14, 2020

(8 minute read)

Syria in the Nation's Capital

Caesar Act: House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa ranking member Joe Wilson (R-SC) took to social media to highlight a detailed account of Omar Alshogre, a Syrian refugee, who previously had been arrested by the Assad regime and brutally tortured over the span of three years. In a tweet, Wilson shared his support for the Caesar Act (P.L. 116-92), stating Congress will continue to hold the Assad regime responsible until all political prisoners are set free.

Chemical Weapons Report: Congress has received a report from the Department of State that concludes the Assad regime has an active chemical weapons program that includes procurement activities for its ballistic missile program. A Foreign Policy review of the document found that the State Department warned of Iran using the Syrian conflict to build up a coterie of multinational militias along border crossings and to fly armed drones over Israel.      

ISIS Detainees - Follow Up: The Department of Justice announced its indictment of El Shafee El-Sheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, two ISIS members, on charges of the abduction and murder of four Americans in Syria. This development was politicalized during the 2020 election debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Cal.). Pence brought up that the parents of one of the victims, Kayla Mueller, were present for the debate, and charged that under Joe Biden’s tenure as vice president the administration’s hesitancy on a military operation to rescue Kayla led to its failure. He then stated the Mueller’s believe their daughter would have been alive if Donald Trump had been president. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien traveled to Arizona to attend the unveiling of a portrait of Kayla that is on view in the Arizona Capitol.

U.S. Sanctions Authority Extended: The White House announced that the legal authority to impose punitive sanctions on Turkey over its incursion into northeastern Syria will be extended by one year. In October 2018 President Trump signed an executive order enacting targeted sanctions in response to Turkey opening a military offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the U.S. considered detrimental to the anti-ISIS campaign. 

Syria at the UN and Abroad

Opposition Talks with Russia: A side meeting at the United Nations was held recently between a delegation of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and a Russian diplomat. Led by Chairman Nasr al-Hariri, they called on Russia to end its relationship with Bashar al-Assad. The request required the cessation of military operations on the ground and the end of the providing of political and military support. Accompanying Hariri at the meeting was Coordinator of the Foreign Relations Department, Abdulahad Astepho, and Representative to the United Nations, Maryam Chalabi.  

Oil Smugglers Detained in Lebanon: Lebanese authorities have put into custody a ship captain and a shipping agent and charged them with attempting to smuggle four million gallons of fuel into Syria. Arab News reported the ship was intercepted off an area of the Lebanese coast known as a stronghold for Hezbollah. The suspects are said to have confessed they planned to unload the fuel in Lebanon before smuggling it into Syria. The report also noted the Damascus-based Al-Neem company is in contact with individuals in Lebanon to seize the fuel shipment for smuggling purposes.   

Russia Gains UNHRC Seat: Against the protest of international human rights organizations and individuals around the world, Russia and China secured seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday. Russia garnered 158 votes from member states of the UN General Assembly. Opposition to the appointment was grounded in criticism of Russia’s systematic human rights violations in Syria, Crimea, and Georgia. Saudi Arabia failed in its bid to win a seat. 

Syria on the Ground

COVID Update: The Assad regime’s dependence on Russia appears to extend to fighting the spread of COVID-19. A pro-regime media outlet claims that Syria will discuss possible ways to obtain a Russian vaccine when it becomes available on the global market, as the regime prepares for a second wave of the virus. This comes amid reports that the number of bodies brought to Najha cemetery outside Damascus has spiked to the extent that efforts are underway to build a mass grave that could hold thousands. Last week, the United Nations announced $40 million from the Syrian Humanitarian Fund would be released to address the spread of COVID-19 in regime-held and eastern areas of Syria.  

Forest Fires: Due to unusually warm temperatures a series of fires broke out in Tartus, Latakia, Hama, and Homs provinces. At least 195 fires have left three dead with 70 hospitalized for smoke inhalation in Latakia alone. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as many as 25,000 people were displaced, and the fires resulted in the destruction of 9,000 hectares of agricultural and forest lands. Early estimates by OCHA suggest up to 140,000 people have been affected by the blazes. While a full assessment is ongoing, the UN says reports indicate the fires had all been contained, with cooling procedures and monitoring ongoing, to mitigate the risk of reignition over the coming days.   

Regime Targeting Makhlouf: New information has emerged in the ongoing conflict between the Makhlouf and Assad families. A pro-Hezbollah publication reported that Asma al-Assad has been leading the campaign to seize Rami Makhlouf’s assets. Makhlouf is now confined to his house outside of Damascus and has not eaten for many days due to fears that he is being poisoned.  The anti-corruption committee led by the wife of Bashar al-Assad is said to possibly be targeting former Prime Minister Imad Khamis next. An opposition website reported that Makhlouf’s wife and two of his children left for the United Arab Emirates in early October.

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. 

Child Refugee Campaign: In 2021, a number of British artists will launch a public campaign to highlight the plight of Syrian children who fled their country for Europe. Lasting from April to July, “The Walk” involves an over 11-foot puppet known as Little Amal traveling on foot from the Syrian-Turkish border through seven countries before reaching its destination in Manchester, England. The Guardian reported that along the pre-selected route a series of major street parties and city performances to more intimate community events will be held.  

Fighting COVID in Idlib: The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) is highlighting its efforts to meet the health challenges in northwestern Syria presented by the COVID-19 virus. They interviewed Dr. Salah Al-Saleh, an ICU specialist who works at the recently built Al-Zara’a Hospital. He warned that only a small portion of the public is cognizant of the danger and wears masks. In response, hospital officials are in constant communication with the Health Directorate and other local and international organizations to join forces to educate the public about the virus. This involves conducting educational courses and awareness campaigns, but Dr. Saleh admitted more support is needed from the international community. A recent report by the Center for Global Policy analyzes the Assad regime’s response to the pandemic, concluding that NGOs and UN agencies, such as SAMS have stepped up to the crisis response, despite dealing with suspicion and surveillance by the regime.   

Civil Society Empowerment: UN Women announced it seeks to expand its partnerships with women civil society groups working for Syria. Specifically, they are requesting the submission of proposals to find responsible to implement their program titled, “Supporting Syrian women’s engagement in the Syrian political process: Building a Constituency for Peace”. Submissions from interested parties have a deadline of October 30.     


“‘It’s like Judgment Day’: Syrians Recount Horror of an Unreported COVID-19 Outbreak”: Asser Khattab reports for Newlines Magazine on the COVID-19 crisis in Syria and the ways that the regime has purposely obfuscated the full extent of the outbreak, to devastating results. 

Turkey continues to deport Syrian to Idlib, violating international law”: An investigative report by the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre found that Turkish authorities have deported more than 16,000 Syrians to Idlib this year.

Inside HTS’ most dangerous prison”: The first in a series on Al-Oqab prison by Ahmad Obeid for Syria Untold delves into the HTS prison in northwestern Syria.

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