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Syria Digest: August 19, 2020

(8 minute read)

Syria in the Nation's Capital

Syria Sanctions: Over the weekend, U.S. officials confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that the Trump Administration plans to impose additional sanctions on Syria. This latest tranche of penalties is expected to be focused on targeting financial-support networks that support the Assad regime from outside of the country. This development comes just a few weeks after the White House announced a second round of sanctions invoked under the Caesar Act (P.L. 116-92).  

U.S. Forces in Syria: The head of U.S. Central Command, Maj. Gen. Frank McKenzie Jr. indicated that the U.S. will reduce its force levels in eastern Syria. Speaking at an U.S. Institute of Peace event, he said he doesn’t believe the United States will remain in Syria forever and seeks to lower the number of troops on the ground, but did not know when that would happen. However, McKenzie conceded that a full withdrawal would be a political decision and not a military one. McKenzie further observed that settling the conflict in Syria in part requires the U.S. and the international community to allow repatriation of detainees in eastern Syria to their home countries. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) echoed these concerns in a tweet.     

Terrorism Funding: Fundraising operations for an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria recently took a hit. The Department of Justice announced it uncovered and dismantled online fundraising schemes to provide terrorist financing through cryptocurrency. Based in Syria, these groups operated a bitcoin money-laundering network posing as charities that openly called for donations to provide weapons to fighters on the ground.   

Austin Tice - Update: Last week, the Trump administration called on the Syrian government to release Austin Tice, an American citizen who went missing after being detained at a checkpoint in Damascus in August 2012. In a statement, President Trump declared the administration will not rest until Austin is free. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disclosed that Trump wrote to Bashar al-Assad in March requesting direct dialogue, a position that the secretary still reportedly opposes.  

Syria at the UN and Abroad

Constitutional Committee: Members of the Syria Constitution Committee will gather in Geneva on August 24th. Included among the participants will be Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Ambassador James Jeffrey. In a briefing Jeffrey noted it was his expectation that the committee not just meet for several days but several weeks, and would schedule future meetings. Jeffrey will be holding side meetings with European and Middle Eastern counterparts.     

UNSC Briefing on Syria: UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen is scheduled to brief the United Nations Security Council later today. Pedersen’s presentation is expected to focus on next week’s meeting of the Syria Constitution Committee and the latest developments regarding the spread of COVID-19 on the ground. According to the UN and World Health Organization’s latest situation report, based on information provided by Syria's Ministry of Health, the number of confirmed cases in regime-held areas has doubled in the last three weeks.   

Jordan Closes Border Crossing: Last week, following an increase in COVID-19 cases in the city of Ramtha, near the Syrian border, Jordan moved to close the Jabar border crossing for one week. The closure order came from the Jordanian Minister of the Interior, Salameh Hammad, based upon the recommendations from the Committee for Organizing and Follow-up for Border and Airport Affairs. Jordanian officials then isolated Ramtha in an attempt to slow the rate of infections. Jordanian health officials pointed to the largest daily rise in cases in four months, with half of the 39 cases in Ramtha, prompting concerns they are linked to Syria. 

Assad Meets With Iranian Officials: Iranian officials traveled to Damascus this week to hold direct talks with Bashar al-Assad. A senior assistant to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali-Asghar Khaji, discussed with Assad continuing Iranian support of Syria and enhancing cooperation on bilateral and regional issues. Last week in a briefing Ambassador James Jeffrey, United States Special Representative for Syria Engagement, said he believes Russia has enough leverage to bring Assad to the negotiating table and to pressure him to push Iranian troops out of the country.

Syria on the Ground

Russian Airstrikes in Idlib: Russian airstrikes targeted makeshift camps in the Harbanoush and Sheikh Bahr Nahr areas of Idlib this week. Local observers told Reuters that 20 raids were carried out. This follows a roadside bombing of a joint-patrol of the M4 road by Russian and Turkish forces. According to Russian state media, the attack killed a Russian major general and left three soldiers wounded. 

U.S. and Regime Forces Clash: Earlier this week, U.S. troops and Syrian Democratic Forces conducting a joint-patrol near Tal Al-Zahab came under fire after passing through a regime-held checkpoint. U.S. forces returned fire, resulting in at least one Syrian killed. Syrian state media reported that following the firefight U.S. helicopters attacked a Syrian army checkpoint near the city of Qamishli. The spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve issued a statement rejecting the claim of any military reprisal.

Protests in Daraa: The residents of Daraa, in southwest Syria, continue to demand the release of detainees. Earlier this month, a protest was organized against continued detention by the regime. During the protest, the people of Daraa camp blocked the roads to the camp in an attempt to pressure the Assaad regime into releasing detainees. Among those protesting were Palestinian refugees. Last month alone, 19 people were detained by the regime, not including those who were forcibly conscripted. Regime forces were mobilized in response to the protest. 

American Journalist Arrested: Over the weekend, Al-Monitor reported Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants detained American-born journalist and activist Bilal Abdul Kareem in Idlib. Abdul Kareem and his driver were taken into custody near the city of Atmeh following an interview of Racquell Hayden-Best, the wife of a British aid worker Tauqir Sharif who was arrested by HTS in June. Prior to his arrest, Abdul Kareem had been openly critical of HTS for torturing captives. In 2017, he was stripped of his British citizenship over alleged links to al-Qaeda, and that same year Abdul Kareem sued the United States government for supposedly placing him on a kill list, claiming that he has survived five drone strikes.

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. 

White Helmets: The White Helmets continue to provide vital services related to public health and sanitation as COVID-19 spreads throughout Syria. In internally displaced person (IDP) camps in northern Syria, they deploy awareness teams to conduct routine visits to provide virus prevention instruction to civilians. Recently, they have provided 3,773 ambulance services and medical care to 8,810 civilians. Using their volunteer force, they are disinfecting buildings, schools, tents, and camps.

Yellow Rose Campaign:  On August 21, the organization Don’t Suffocate Truth and Syrian journalist and photographer Fared Alhor have organized a campaign to distribute yellow roses to mark the anniversary of the Ghouta chemical weapon attack in 2013. Paper yellow roses and information about the campaign will be distributed throughout Syria and internationally. Those who want to participate can print roses and information flyers in a variety of languages. Participants are encouraged to share the roses and papers in universities, malls, metro stations, or any other location where such activities are permitted while observing social distancing and wearing masks. 

Analysis

COVID Will Lead to More Child Marriage - What Can be Done?”: Joud Monla-Hassan and Mona Yacoubian write for the United States Institute for Peace on the anticipated increase in early child marriages due to the pandemic, using the Syria conflict as an estimator of how a crisis increases child marriages.

The Syrian regime wheels and deals minorities to remain in power”: In a piece for The Atlantic Council, Ayman Abdel Nour analyzes the tactics of the Assad regime in using minorities against each other in order to stay in power.

The erasure of Yarmouk refugee camp”: Leila al-Shami reports on the systematic targeting of the Palestinians of the Yarmouk camp by the Assad regime.

“‘Like a horror movie’: major COVID-19 outbreak in Damascus and failed response’”: The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre argues that a major response is needed by the Syrian regime to save thousands of lives and that the regime has failed in their response leading to widespread deaths.

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