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Syria Digest: September 30, 2020

(8 minute read)

Syria in the Nation's Capital

Caesar Act: Three members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee do not want the United States to enforce the Caesar Act (P.L. 116-92) in certain regards to Lebanon. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) submitted a request to the Department of State signed by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) that the legislation does not penalize Lebanese importation of electricity from Syria. The Atallah Law Group in a statement to a Lebanese media outlet confirmed the lawmakers’ request. Group founder Celine Atallah, who has worked with Shaheen on exemption issues for Lebanon, is associated with Shaheen and Gordon, P.A., a firm whose co-partner William Shaheen is the Senator’s spouse.  

Anti-ISIS Campaign: A top official at the Department of State admitted to a Congressional panel that, despite repeated claims by President Trump, ISIS was not defeated in Syria. This admission was made by Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale when testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During the hearing, Hale was asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) why did the U.S. recently deploy 100 more troops into eastern Syria. The witness said while the question should be directed to defense officials it was clear the campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria was not complete.   

Austin Tice: The House Foreign Affairs Committee has scheduled a markup later this week that has on the agenda a sense of Congress resolution (HRES 17) expressing concern about the disappearance of Austin Tice, an American citizen who went missing after being detained at a checkpoint in Damascus in August 2012. The resolution encourages the U.S. to pursue efforts to obtain information on Tice’s detention and secure his release. The committee will adopt a substitute amendment that adds language calling for the U.S. to also obtain the release of Majd Kamalmaz, an American citizen who was arrested and imprisoned by the Syrian regime in 2017. Last week, the National Press Club Journalism Institute and McClatchy collaborated to have hundreds of media outlets publish an op-ed from Jacob Tice calling for his brother’s release. 

Humanitarian Aid: The U.S. announced last week a new round of humanitarian assistance for Syria. In a statement, the Department of State said $419 million would be provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance and more than $301 million from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. The funding will be doled out to local communities hosting Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and other countries. 

Syria at the UN and Abroad

UNGA Side Event on Syria: On Tuesday, the Syrian Network for Human Rights and The Day After co-hosted a Side Event to the United Nations General Assembly titled “The Need for Justice for Detainees Held by the Assad Regime Amidst COVID-19”. The participants included U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey and his European counterparts from Germany and Denmark. The panelists stressed the importance of accountability of the crimes committed by the Assad regime is critical to achieving a peaceful end to the Syrian conflict.  

Hariri Addresses UNGA: Over the weekend by video conference, Syrian Opposition Coalition Chairman Nasr al-Hariri addressed members of the United Nations General Assembly. In his speech, Hariri requested that in this 75th session the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition be recognized and seated, and for the UN Security Council to expel the Syrian Government from the UN. Providing deep detail of the Assad regime’s crimes Hariri criticized his audience for being personally responsible for the continued existence of the criminal among them.     

ISIS Detainees: Recent efforts by Albania to secure the release of citizens under detention in al-Hol camp have not achieved significant results. Minister of Interior Sander Lleshaj traveled to Beirut to meet with his Lebanese counterpart and General Security Chief, Major General Abbas Ibrahim to discuss how Lebanon could assist in the repatriation of Albanians in the camp. Lleshaj explained to an Albanian media outlet that negotiations even for just the release of children have been complicated, but noted that due to the nature of the war, releasing the adults would be impossible.

ISIS Hostages: The UK has provided the Department of Justice evidence against El Shafee El-Sheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey in the killing of Americans in Syria. The information provided to prosecutors was made possible following Attorney General William Barr’s written request that the U.S. would not seek the death penalty for the two men. Barr has also threatened to move to transfer custody of the two men to the Iraqi government for prosecution if evidence and cooperation were not met by Oct. 15.    

Syria on the Ground

Hunger in Syria: The threat of malnutrition to Syrian children is becoming a worsening reality on the ground. This week it was reported that now 4.6 million children face issues of food insecurity, with an increase of over 700,000 children, caused by government mismanagement and corruption and the growing outbreak of COVID-19. The report notes that one in eight children in Syria suffer from chronic malnutrition which leaves them very vulnerable to a myriad of health risks, including stunting. The United Nations Population Fund and the World Food Program announced they are scaling up their electronic voucher system that targets pregnant women who have heightened nutritional requirements.  

Fighters to Azerbaijan: As tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia continues to escalate, reports have surfaced of Syrians in opposition-held areas enlisting to get involved as well as Syrian Armenians leaving for the aid of Armenia. The Guardian reported a private Turkish security firm last month started a recruitment drive for fighters in Idlib. Sources in the Syrian National Army claim fighters from a number of armed groups have already arrived in Azerbaijan. Syrians who spoke with The Guardian said a possible motivating factor in recruitment were offers of better salaries. Contradicting reports from both sides are still incoming.

COVID-19 Update: In the past month, northwest Syria has witnessed a ten-fold increase in COVID-19 cases, as the pandemic continues to proliferate throughout the country. As of last week, 640 people had tested positive in the region, with 30 percent of the cases among health care workers. However, limited testing continues to hinder the accurate reporting of the rate of transmission and the number of infections. In the areas of Shehba, 300,000 people, the majority of them Kurdish, who were displaced from Afrin in 2016 have had difficulty accessing COVID-19 treatment as they are caught between the regime, supported by Russia, and the Turkish-backed Syrian groups. Unlike other internally displaced people in Syria who are usually located in an area controlled by one side, this added layer of complexity has made access to humanitarian and medical supplies even more tenuous. The United States took the opportunity on the International Day for Universal Access to Information to call on the Assad regime to grant full and transparent access to information on the scale of the pandemic in Syria to the United Nations and international NGOs. On Sunday, Jordan resumed land border traffic with Syria and added new prevention rules after closing the Nasib-Jaber crossing due to COVID-19 cases among border officials.

Syrian Air Defense Deal: Last week, Brigadier General Abdolfazl Shekarchi, a senior spokesman for the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces confirmed that contracts signed between the two countries included the fortification of Syria’s air defense system. This plan came at the request of Damascus during the July signing of a memorandum of understanding on technical and military cooperation, in response to increased Israeli airstrikes. On Sunday, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, aide and military advisor to the Iranian government told Mehr News Agency contracts with the Syrians were signed in exchange for expected payment by the Assad regime for Iranian assistance, and that Russia benefits more from Syria than Iran.

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. 

Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People of 2020: Syrian filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab and military photographer “Caesar” were recently honored for their bravery and dedication in forging a path for a free Syria by Time Magazine. Waad's portrayal of motherhood in war in the Oscar-nominated documentary For Sama landed her on a list of pioneers, while Caesar's actions to smuggle documented photos of the Assad regime’s murder of thousands of civilians led to his recognition as a leader. Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) tweeted his support of Caesar’s designation, noting that he had the honor of meeting with him last year and that his heroic actions had led to the passage of the Caesar Act. Ivanka Trump also tweeted congratulations for both Waad and Caesar.

Syrian Revolution Cup Football Tournament: The Syrian National Olympic Committee has launched a football tournament called the “Syrian Revolution Cup”.  The tournament, which will last four weeks started on Sunday, and will feature 16 teams from the southern provinces. The tournament is intended to serve as a message to the world that the Syrian people are still committed to the demands and goals of the Syrian revolution, and they deserve to live in a country that respects their dignity and capabilities.

Analysis

“‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’: War-Weary Syrian Americans Want Resolution”: Jack Detsch writes for Foreign Policy on the voting power of Syrian Americans in an election with a that is anticipated to have a small margin. 

Queerness and the revolution: Towards an alternative Syrian archive”: In a piece for SyriaUntold, Fadi Saleh delves into the lack of “writing, documentation and earnest archival and political work” on LGBTIQ issues in the Syrian revolution and conflict, and the need for an archive on queer issues to be part of a future Syria.

Looting, burning, cutting: How a decade of war has shrunk Syria’s forests”: Will Christou and Syria Direct report on the systematic loss of Syria’s forest and soil qualities over the last twenty years, and the intensification of the environmental degradation over the last decade, with the consequences on mass food insecurity, and an inability to secure fuel for heating and cooking.

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