Syria Digest: October 7, 2020

(9 minute read)

Syria in the Nation's Capital

Syria Sanctions: A new round of U.S. sanctions targeting the Assad regime was announced last week. The Department of Treasury designated three individuals and 13 entities as enablers of the Syrian government. Khodr Taher Bin Ali was among the three listed on the basis of serving as an intermediary and contractor for the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division. The governor of the Syrian Central Bank, Hazem Younes Karfou Husam was designated, as well as Muhammad Louka, the current head of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate. In a statement, the Department of State noted the sanctions were issued in the wake of the third anniversary of the attack against the town of Armanaz by pro-regime and Russian forces that left 34 dead.      

Austin Tice - Update: The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved by voice vote a sense of Congress resolution (HRES 17) that calls on the United States to take steps to secure the release of Austin Tice, an American citizen who went missing after being detained at a checkpoint in Damascus in August 2012. In a last-second change, the panel adopted a substitute amendment that strikes language calling for the U.S. to engage with the Assad regime on the release of Tice and other detainees. Additional language, offered by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) reiterated a provision from the Caesar Act (P.L. 116-92) requiring the Assad regime to free all political prisoners. 

Pentagon Report on ISIS: The latest report of the Department of Defense Inspector General finds that stabilization efforts in northeastern Syria remain ongoing. According to USAID there is programming for 65 activities totaling $16.8 million. These projects are being monitored by agency personnel in Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S. However, the report notes the April 2018 freeze on new funding for stabilization efforts in Syria remain largely in effect. In addition, USAID Inspector General plans to audit the agency’s support to internally displaced persons in Syria to determine if USAID is appropriately managing the risks that are inherent in providing humanitarian and stabilization assistance. The audit is scheduled to be completed by September 2021. 

Hezbollah Sanctions Bill: A group of House Republicans led by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced legislation (HR 8445) that would tackle money laundering operations by Hezbollah. The bill would require the president to make a determination that areas under Hezbollah’s control in south Lebanon and in the tri-border region in South America are “primary money laundering concerns.”  

ISIS Detainees: U.S. officials declared that all Americans captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been repatriated to the United States. The Department of Justice issued a release announcing the recent transfer of four individuals into U.S. custody who are charged with providing material support for ISIS, bringing the total to 27 American citizens known to be repatriated into American custody from Syria and Iraq. The department strongly urged other countries, particularly in Western Europe, to repatriate their own citizens held in detention in eastern Syria. In addition, it was reported this week that El Shafee El-Sheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, two ISIS members accused of killing Americans in Syria, will be brought to the United States in mid-October.    

Syria at the UN and Abroad

UNSC Briefing on Chemical Weapons: Members of the United Nations Security Council were provided a briefing on the status of Syria’s chemical weapons program. They were notified that Syria has not provided any information since members were briefed in September. Following the update, the UNSC defeated a Russian motion for the council to receive a second briefing from a former head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who accused the group of a possible cover-up of a 2018 chemical attack in Douma. U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft accused Russia of attempting to spread propaganda and shield the Assad regime from accountability. Craft went on to say the U.S. expects the regime to meet the OPCW’s October 7th deadline to report on its chemical weapons stockpile. OPCW recently declared there was insufficient evidence that the Assad regime employed chemical weapons in attacks on two separate towns in 2016 and 2018. They concluded in their report that the August 2016 attack against Saraquib, in Idlib Province, had dozens of civilians treated for exposure to an irritant substance but it could not be identified. A second report failed to establish whether or not chemicals were used as a weapon in the incident that took place in the neighborhood of Al-Khalidiyah and its surroundings in Northwest Aleppo in November 2018. The reports note the continued lack of cooperation from Syrian authorities.    


UN Resolution on Human Rights: The United Nations Human Rights Council convened to discuss a draft resolution that condemns human rights abuses carried out by the Assad regime. During the course of the debate, Venezuela was the only country to openly oppose the measure. The measure was approved by a vote of 27 to 1, with 19 abstentions.    

NGOs Legal Suit Against Assad: Earlier this week, three non-governmental organizations filed a criminal complaint in Germany over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. The Justice Initiative, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and the Syrian Archive submitted the filing and provided a dossier of evidence to a specialized international war crimes unit. The filing focuses on the regime’s use of sarin gas in Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Shaykhun in 2017.    

Oman Strengthens Ties with Assad: Oman over the weekend sent an ambassador to Damascus, becoming the first Gulf state to do so after their embassies were either downgraded or shut down in 2012. According to Al Jazeera, Oman had retained diplomatic ties with Syria throughout the conflict but maintained a policy of non-intervention beyond providing humanitarian assistance.  

Syria on the Ground

Wagner Recruits Syrians: Reports surfaced online that PMC Wagner, a Russian military contractor that has sent mercenaries to fight on behalf of the Assad regime, is recruiting Syrians to fight in other conflicts. BBC Syria Producer Riam Dalati tweeted that a source within the Assad regime confirmed the group will provide up to $3,000 per month for tours of duty in Venezuela. Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute commented that the recruitment would add to the manpower and security challenges that the regime is facing.

Regime Bread Restrictions: New restrictions on the distribution of bread in regime-held areas have Syrians with large families at greater risk for starvation. The Guardian reported how civilians are resorting to the black market paying up to five-times the amount for bread purchased at regime-run bakeries. Food insecurity is further compounded by a decrease in bread production from 4.1 million tons in 2011 to 2.2 million tons in 2019. The article noted the regime does not have the foreign currency reserves to import more wheat and Russian deliveries of the commodity have been suspended.   

Al-Hol Detainees: On Monday, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) announced that a decision had been made to release all Syrians from the Al-Hol detention camp. In a video on Twitter Ilham Ahmed, president of the SDC’s Executive Committee said those who choose to remain in the camp will not be the responsibility of the Self-Administration, because it is no longer obligated to provide them food and other things. Al-Monitor reported that Syrians from regime-held areas who fear returning because of retribution would be permitted to stay. The decision appeared to be motivated in part by local pressure, and resentment by Arab communities against the Kurdish-led administration. A State Department official told Al-Monitor that they had discussed this with the SDC and that it does not signify a change in the process for Syrians to leave the camp, but an acceleration of efforts as part of ongoing return initiatives. In August, UNICEF reported that the crowded conditions in the camp had worsened COVID-19 conditions in the camp, which suffers from a lack of health-care services.

Russian Plans for Syria?: Baladi News cited Israeli and Arabic media sources speculating on future Russian plans in Syria. Israel’s Channel 12 published an analysis finding Vladimir Putin's patience with Assad is running out and wants the regime to make significant political concessions and submit a new constitution to a referendum by March 2021, followed by parliamentary elections in May and presidential elections in July. At the same time, the article referenced an Asharq Al-Awsat report on rumors of the regime attempting to engage in secret negotiations with Israel that the latter rejected. This comes as last week marked the fifth anniversary of the entrance of Russia in the Syrian war. 

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. 

Petition to Stop Inclusion of Russia on UNSC: The Syria Campaign, a human rights organization focused on Syria, has circulated a petition calling for the United Nations to stop the appointment of Russia to the UN Human Rights Council due to war crimes committed in Syria, Crimea, and Georgia. The Syria Campaign spearheaded a letter signed by a global coalition of over 40  organizations that calls on UN member states to vote against Russia’s appointment, arguing that a seat on the UNHRC would allow Putin even greater power in silencing the victims of his and Assad’s crimes. 

Refugee Profile: Texas Standard profiled a Syrian refugee whose family has resettled in the United States. Enrolled in the 11th grade, Shahed Salhab, recounted how the impact of COVID-19 has brought back memories of her experiences during the Syrian conflict. “I didn’t lose anything in COVID, but, like, in Syria and when the war happened, I lost people. I saw scary stuff I’m not supposed to see. Every single moment, I still remember even though I was 7 years old at that time.” said Salhab. Her general outlook improved through the use of Zoom meetings to interact with teachers and fellow students. 


I survived Assad’s torture- here’s why I’m a proud advocate of the Caesar Act”: Syrian Emergency Task Force Director of Detainees Affairs Omar Alshogre writes for the Atlantic Council on the necessity of the Caesar Act as a step towards accountability by using his own experience as a prisoner in Assad’s prison.

The War for the Future of Syria and Iraq Will Be Fought On Smartphones”: In a piece for Foreign Policy Seth J. Frantzman delves into the information war on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and efforts by the U.S. led coalition to counter propoganda by Damascus and Moscow.

On the Streets of Damascus”: Journalist Clarrisa Ward shares an excerpt from her book On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist with Newlines Magazines where she reminisces on her experiences reporting the peaceful protests against the regime in 2011.

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