Syria Digest: November 18, 2020

(7 minute read)

Syria in the Nation's Capital

Jeffrey on the Record: Before leaving his post, U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey disclosed his views regarding President Trump’s handling of Syria in the northeast. Jeffrey candidly observed to Defense One that while Trump’s initial announcements to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria were the “most controversial” decisions taken in Jeffrey’s 50 years of public service, that in the end the current American posture has produced more stability in the area than actions taken by the previous two Presidents. Jeffrey concluded that from a realpolitik perspective, containing and blocking the advances of Iran in Syria and Iraq are net positives for the region. Jeffrey also admitted senior leaders in the administration were not told that U.S. troop levels in Syria are higher than they believed stating, “we were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there.”  

NDAA in Doubt?: House Armed Services ranking member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) raised concerns that the fallout of the 2020 congressional elections could prevent passage of a conference report to the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization bills (HR 6395/S 4049). Some lawmakers are recommending Congress delay a conference report until after the Senate runoff elections in Georgia on January 5th. This would avoid any potential political impact from passing an NDAA that would include language requiring that Confederate base names, including Fort Benning in Georgia, be changed. Thornberry warned that between the upcoming presidential inauguration and the formation of committees under a new Congress, the process to draft an NDAA would have to start all over in 2021. 

Iranian Websites Shut Down: The Department of Justice recently announced that over two dozen Internet domain names were to be taken down due to violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. According to the affidavit filed by federal authorities these websites were operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as part of a global disinformation campaign. Among this group included “” and “”. Both entities targeted Syrian audiences with media content critical of the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel.  

Syria at the UN and Abroad

Torture Lawsuit: A German medicial worker joined a pending lawsuit against the Assad regime for committing acts of torture and other human rights violations. Martin Lautwein recounted to the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) his experiences following his arrest in Qamishli in 2018 that brought him to Syrian Intelligence's Branch 235 outside of Damascus. Lautwein was subjected to and witnessed acts of torture over a 48-hour period before being released at the behest of the Czech government. Patrick Kroker, head of the Syria team at ECCHR said Lautwein’s statement must be taken seriously and Germany should now join the Netherlands' legal suit against Syria before the International Court of Justice. 

Denmark Turns on Refugees: Syrians that have sought refuge in Denmark now run the risk of facing potential deportation. The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre highlighted the legal limbo refugees face given the decision by Danish authorities to revoke or refuse to extend residence permits for many Syrian refugees from Damascus. This move compounds Denmark’s declaration earlier this year to fast-track its review of nearly 900 Syrian refugees from Damascus by the end of the year. The group further noted that authorities have now rejected new asylum applications and has expanded its focus to include Syrians from rural Damascus. However, the Centre points out that as of now, Denmark is not currently carrying out deportations to Syria because the two countries lack a repatriation agreement.

Syria on the Ground

Refugee Conference:  A Russian-organized global conference in Syria to address the refugee crisis did not attract the attention and interest hoped for. The United States called out the lack of participation beyond the narrow allies of the regime as evidence of mere theatrics, and noted the regime’s lies exposed by conference staff admitting Syrians would rather flee the country than return. The European Union announced it would boycott the conference given that conditions inside the country at present do not lend themselves to the promotion of large-scale voluntary return. Speakers at the two-day conference recounted the Assad regime’s narrative of the Syrian conflict as an international conspiracy to topple the government, while eschewing refugee concerns that returning home would lead to arrest or conscription into the Syrian army. Syrian Network for Human Rights on Twitter revealed that the Assad regime is charging refugees $100 before they are allowed to reenter the country.

Hezbollah in Syria: An Israeli research group released extensive analysis finding Hezbollah’s military footprint inside southern Syria is much larger than anticipated. The report identifies 58 sites and areas where two units are deployed in Quneitra and Daraa Provinces, the “Southern Command” and the “Golan File.” The 28 sites occupied by the Southern Command are for the purposes of creating an operational infrastructure for all Hezbollah activities in southern Syria, while the Golan File serves as a proxy force for Hezbollah whose members are local Syrians.     

U.S. Hostages Negotiations: Lebanese Security Chief Major General Abbas Ibrahim disclosed he traveled to Damascus for two days regarding the release of U.S. citizens being detained by the Assad regime. While not providing much specifics Ibrahim did say that discussions will continue regarding the release of Austin Tice, a U.S. citizen believed held in detention by the Assad regime since August 2012. Last week in an interview with The Hill, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the U.S. is using every tool possible to secure Tice’s release, and that President Trump would like to see Tice in the U.S. before he leaves office.

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. 

Education Activism on Syria: The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PIRO) in collaboration with PositivesNegatives released an animation film titled “A Future for Syria.”  The film follows a Syrian woman who dedicates herself to schooling for children under war.  Production of the piece was made for PIRO’s TRANSFORM project which places an emphasis on heroic everyday acts of common people who attempt to challenge dehumanizing trends of exclusion and abuse in violent conflict in Syria, Somalia and Myanmar.


Syria’s Constitutional Committee: The Devil in the Detail”: Karam Shaar and Ayman Dasouki provide an expert analysis of the composition of the constitutional committee, including a breakdown of the member’s backgrounds and political leanings.

Permission to Kill”: Armenak Tokmajan delves into the shifting red line of what is deemed acceptable political behavior by the Syrian regime for an article for the Carnegie Middle East Center.

ICMP report highlights need to launch missing persons process for Syria”: In a piece for the Atlantic Council, Kathryne Bomberger argues for an “effort to account for Syria’s missing” and that it is  “undertaken and sustained within a clear and robust accountability framework.”

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