Syria Digest: December 9, 2020

(8 minute read)

Syria in the Nation's Capital

Syria Hearing: This morning, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing to evaluate the Trump administration’s track record on U.S. policy in Syria. U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn will appear before the committee to make the case that the last four years have netted results for American security interests on the ground and the region. Rayburn may discuss his recent trip to the region that included meetings in Turkey and northeast Syria. During his meeting in Ankara, Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin conveyed to Rayburn the need of the international community to support Turkey’s efforts to preserve the March ceasefire agreement in northwestern Syria. At the time, Rayburn in a press conference predicted that neither President Trump or the incoming Biden administration will further reduce U.S. forces in Syria.    

NDAA: Despite a presidential veto threat, the House passed the conference report to the FY 2021 defense authorization bill (HR 6395) on Tuesday. The measure reauthorizes the Syria Train & Equip Program through 2021 with an additional $200 million in funding. Another provision is a requirement that the Pentagon certifies that U.S. forces are not involved in the extraction, transport, transfer, or sale of oil from Syria. Defense officials would be required to provide briefings on Russian and Iranian bases in Syria and other countries. Language in the conference report includes requiring the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to expand the Open Burn Pit Registry to include veterans who have served in Syria. However, provisions in the House-passed and Senate-passed version that were taken out of the conference report were the following: report on the presence of Russian military forces in Syria and other foreign countries; report on human rights violations committed by U.S.-backed forces; and legislation providing authorization to impose sanctions on persons responsible for hostage-taking or unlawful detention abroad.   

Proxy Sanctions Legislation: The ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) has introduced legislation (HR 8844) that would designate the Badr organization, an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). In a statement, Wilson argued the U.S. must confer FTO status given its malign activities extend beyond Iraq. “Badr is Iran’s oldest proxy in Iraq and has the blood of Americans, Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese on its hand,” said Wilson.

Syria at the UN and Abroad

Constitutional Talks: Members of the constitutional committee agreed to reconvene in Geneva on January 25th. In advance of the next round, both the Assad regime and the political opposition submitted documents laying out their respective positions, which sparked a heated exchange between both sides. On behalf of the Higher Negotiations Committee, the head of the delegation Hadi al-Bahra filed a four-page plan requiring the creation of a republic established on pluralism. Power would be delegated democratically and through voting.      

Syrian Intelligence Official in Austria - Follow Up: More information has come to light regarding the report as to how a former senior Syrian intelligence official had fled to Austria five years ago. The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre obtained leaked documents from Austria’s national intelligence service that discusses “Operation White Milk,” a deal where Israeli Mossad agents transferred Khaled Al-Halabi into Austria and granted him asylum. However, Al-Halabi later fled his new home in August 2018 at the request of Mossad when local Austrian investigators sought out his whereabouts. 

Captagon Drug Bust: Last week, port officials in Damietta, Egypt seized 11 million pills of the amphetamine captagon in a container that had come from Syria and was bound for the United Arab Emirates. A drug whose trade has ties to Hezbollah, Captagon has been used by extremist groups and others to enhance their fighting abilities. Egyptian authorities in the port of Alexandria also confiscated shipments of hashish that came from Latakia, Syria.

Syria on the Ground

Turkish Build up in Idlib: The presence of Turkish forces in northwest Syria have become more evident in the past week. Reports have surfaced of construction efforts of a large military base in the southern region of Idlib known as Jabal al-Zawiya. Part of this buildup involved the crossing into Idlib from Turkey 60 armored vehicles and trucks heading into the area. This action follows moves in recent weeks by Turkey to set up military posts in Ain Issa, as well as around Tell Tamer and Zirkan, where a YPG official told Al-Monitor they are concerned Turkey could mount military operations in northern Syria.  

Regime Oil Crisis: Syrians in regime-held areas continue to experience an oil shortage. Video shows extremely lengthy line of cars outside a gas station in the Meezah district of Damascus. Pro-regime media sources point the blame at the mismanagement of the sale and distribution of oil derivatives by the fuel company SADCOP. However, media outlets tied to the government will not admit regime’s oil derivatives have become scarce, or that they are being sold on the black market in favor of companies and merchants close to Bashar al-Assad. Relief if any will come with the spotted arrival of an Iranian supertanker off the coast from the Baniyas Refinery. 

Regime Bread Shortages: Along with oil, Syrians living in regime-held areas continue to have limited access to bread in the face of government rations. One civilian living in Damascus told National Public Radio he spends up to six hours a day at his local bakery to receive two packets of pita bread allowed for his family of five. In other parts of the country bread lines have led to acts of violence. A woman in Homs recounted how desperate the situation has become in her neighborhood. “People are killing each other over bread. In some places, militias or just people with guns use their weapons to jump the lines,” she said.

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. 

Medical School Graduations: The Free Aleppo University graduated the first class of 32 medical students two weeks ago. The Azaz-based university has 700 medical students and is funded partially by the Syrian American community, with the goal of being self-sustaining in the future. Next year, 96 students will graduate from the medical program. The teachers are all Syrian with a medical background, and American doctors online also provide support and teach on various medical subjects.

Branch 251 Podcast: The team behind the Branch 251 podcast, which covers the accountability trials taking place in Koblenz, Germany is crowdfunding for season two. The independent podcast seeks to connect Syrians and advocates for justice and accountability to the trials in Germany by providing updates and expert analysis in English that amplify the voices of Syrians. In season two, the team will provide the same content but in Arabic, in order to make the content even more accessible. The fundraiser is donating 10% of the money raised to Molham Team, a Syrian-led organization that provides basic necessities to Syrians in need. Recently, Molham has worked to provide wheelchairs to children with cerebral palsy.

Tarps Arrive In Rukban: With winter on the horizon in Rukban camp on the border of Jordan and Syria, the people of the camp are ill-equipped to handle the rain, snow, cold, and mud, without shelters that have been winterized. In recent years, residents have used makeshift materials to patch their tents, as institutions such as the UN and the International Committee for the Red Cross failed to provide winterization gear for three years. Thirty new tarps have arrived at the camp through an informal distribution network, and an additional shipment is forthcoming which will meet the needs of a total of 500 families.


U.S. Fears Syria’s Assad Meddling in Fragile Lebanon”: Foreign Policy revealed some of the contents of a Department of State report on Syrian and Lebanese sovereignty that found that recent actions by the Assad regime is contributing to Lebanon’s economic collapse by siphoning off foreign currency, which has driven up the exchange rate for the Lebanese Lira. 

Homeschooling Without a Home”: Lina Sergie Attar of the Karam Foundation writes for Newlines Magazine on the struggles faced by Syrian refugee women as they homeschool their children during COVID-19 in refugee camps without access to the technology and support necessary for virtual learning.

A Thinly Veiled Strategy: Assad’s Co-optation of Women Religious Leaders”: Rahaf Aldoughli delves into the exploitation and manipulation of women religion leaders by the Ba’ath regime to further their rhetoric while providing nominal support for women’s equality.

Limited and Constrained: The Biden Administration and the Prospects of a Syria Policy”: Abdulrahman al-Masri theorizes the potential Syria policy under the new administration in a piece for MENASource by the Atlantic Council.

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