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Syria Digest: October 21, 2020

(8 minute read)

Syria in the Nation's Capital

Lawmakers Letter on Syria: The trend of U.S. allies and other countries moving to restore diplomatic ties with the Assad regime has caught the attention of members of Congress. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) and ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) have circulated a draft letter addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting “the U.S. opposes any efforts to renew diplomatic ties with or extend formal diplomatic recognition to the Assad regime.” The draft expresses it is with deep concern countries seek to renew relations with Assad despite his failure to meet the criteria under the Caesar Act (P.L. 116-92) that open the door to improved relations with the United States.  

Austin Tice: A senior Lebanese official came to Washington last week with an agenda that included providing the Trump administration Syrian demands to secure the release of Austin Tice, a U.S. citizen believed held in detention by the Assad regime since August 2012. Major General Abbas Ibrahim confirmed he met with National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien but would not comment if Tice’s case was raised at the meeting. However, Ayman Abdel Nour, President of Syrian Christians for Peace tweeted that a deal would require the U.S. to do the following: freeze implementation of the Caesar Act (P.L. 116-92); allow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to resume diplomatic relations with Syria and provide $5 billion in assistance; for the United States to send an ambassador to Damascus; and the removal of U.S. forces from the al-Tanf base. This meeting came as no surprise with the recent disclosure by The Washington Post that the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council Kash Patel and Ambassador Roger Carstens traveled to Damascus in August to meet with the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau to negotiate for the release of Tice and Majd Kamalmaz, an American citizen who was arrested and imprisoned by the Syrian regime three years ago. The Assad regime in the last several months has reportedly arrested officials who have inspected Tice’s detention facility to ensure such information is not obtained by U.S. intelligence.

Syria at the UN and Abroad

Opposition Letter to UN on Refugees: The Syrian Opposition Coalition reached out to the United Nations to request member support and offer recommendations to address the Syrian refugee crisis. Chairman Nasr al-Hariri provided a legal memorandum to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and Volkan Bozkır, President of the UN General Assembly, outlining how authorities in regime-held areas and in liberated areas in eastern Syria are narrowing the opportunities and motives for refugees to return. Hariri rejected the pursuit of refugee return projects in Syria before a political solution to the conflict has been achieved. He further urged the initiation of a global campaign to create a safe zone in northern Syria.       

EU Sanctions Regime Officials: Syria was subject to a new round of sanctions by the European Union last week. Sanctions were imposed on seven regime officials who were recently appointed to their posts earlier this year on the basis that their departments have shared responsibility in the repression of the Syrian population. The individuals lead the following ministries: Cultural; Justice; Finance; Transportation; Internal Trade and Consumer Protection, and Hydraulics/Water Resources.   

Vatican Meeting on Syria: The Holy See is very concerned that the conflict in Syria is being forgotten by the global community. Pope Francis’ Ambassador to Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari, held a meeting with a group of ambassadors to the Vatican to brief them on the humanitarian situation on the ground. Zenari lamented that Syria is no longer on the media’s radar and international action is needed because time is running out. Attendee Netherlands Ambassador Caroline Weijers tweeted Zenari issued a plea that Syria not be buried under a blanket of silence.

Syria on the Ground

Idlib Outposts Abandoned: A series of Turkish military outposts in areas of northwestern Syria now occupied by pro-regime forces will be abandoned. The decision was reached in the face of Russian efforts to impede or block efforts to resupply the positions, and military provocations by the Assad regime to attack them. Reuters reported the dismantlement operations of the observation post at Morek are already underway. This redeployment comes as Turkey continues to consolidate and reinforce its military presence in Idlib with a convoy of vehicles entering the country consisting of tanks and artillery.  

SDC Frees ISIS Detainees: The Syrian Democratic Council released over 600 detainees from al-Hol camp. In a release, the SDC said that 79 families, most of whom were from the Dier Ezzor countryside would be released into the custody of tribal leaders in the areas of Baghouz and Shafa. This announcement came as a UN spokesman disclosed that around 1,000 people have left the camp in the past month, and that any departures must be voluntary, safe, fully informed, and dignified.

Swedish Delegation in Syria: Concerns about al-Hol and other detention centers were on the minds of Swedish diplomats who traveled to northeast Syria to meet with the Foreign Affairs Department of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and Kurdish military officials. A delegation from the foreign ministry led by Special Envoy for the Syrian Crisis, Per Örnéus, and Avin Jetin from the European Institute for Peace inspected the Washokani Camp outside of Hasaka that holds civilians displaced during the Turkish incursion in October 2019. The officials expressed disappointment over the camp’s poor conditions and questioned the lack of resources given Sweden’s contributions to the United Nations.   

Iran Trade Center in Damascus: Iranian economic presence in Syria took a step forward this week. The Iranian-Syrian Joint Chamber of Commerce announced the creation of a trade center in central Damascus. This twelve-floor structure will house 24 Iranian companies, and establish communication links with other chambers of commerce, industry, and agriculture in other Syrian cities. 

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. 

Ernesto’s Cat Sanctuary Fundraiser: Ernesto’s Cat Sanctuary, run by the famous Aleppo Cat Man, is raising money for winter. The sanctuary, which provides a home and veterinary care for cats, dogs, rabbits, doves, and other animals also provides free animal veterinary care, animal welfare education, and pet therapy to those in the local Idlib and Aleppo areas.  They are raising money to purchase rugs, blankets, fuel, and food in preparation for the winter months which will bring cold rain and snow.

Women Lead in the White Helmets: During the COVID-19 outbreak, the 218 women of the White Helmets have stepped up to lead the response in the northwest. They provide vital services in 33 women’s centers such as treating wounds, measuring blood pressure and sugar levels, and monitoring pregnant women. Some of the women work only 5 km from the frontline, where they fear shelling from the regime forces. In addition to search and rescue work and healthcare, the women provide trauma counseling and community education.

A Candle To Remember: Kesh Malek and Taafi have launched an initiative called “A Candle to Remember” in memory of those who have been forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime. They invite you to light a candle in honor of the detainees and victims of torture, and to remember the importance of continuing to achieve justice and accountability. If you would like to participate, you can take a picture and share it with the hashtag #ACandleToRemember. A video by Taafi accompanies the campaign and features interviews with detainees. 

Analysis

Syria/Russia: Strategy Targeted Civilian Infrastructure”: A new report by Human Rights Watch released this week names Syrian and Russian armed forces’ as perpetrators in war crimes and possible crimes again humanity in Idlib.

Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center”: A collaboration between the Syrian Archive, Open Society Justice Initiative, and ArticWind delves into the Syrian government agency behind Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Cementing dispossession: the bitter reality of reconstruction in Syria”: Alicia Medina writes for Syria Direct on the way that displacement has been used by Assad to punish opponents and reward loyalists.

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