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Syria Digest: September 9, 2020

(8 minute read)

Syria in the Nation's Capital

Letter on Russia in Syria: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) publicly called the Trump Administration to account over it’s response to a recent Russian assault on a U.S. convoy in northeastern Syria. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the senator stated the failure to condemn Russia and provide support for U.S. forces has allowed Russia to “pursue a strategy of encroachment and assault without response.” Shaheen noted this isn't the first time Russia took advantage of the administration’s passivity in Syria. In December 2018, she joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers in writing a warning to President Trump that a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would embolden Russia and diminish support from American allies.      

ISIS Fighter Pleads Guilty: A U.S. citizen who traveled to Syria to join ISIS will soon face incarceration. The Department of Justice announced that Omer Kuzu, repatriated to the U.S. after capture by the Syrian Democratic Forces in March 2019, has agreed to plead guilty to providing material support to ISIS. According to the plea agreement Omer traveled to Turkey in October 2014, then was smuggled into Syria where he provided communications support to frontline ISIS fighters in Kobani and Hama. Omer will face sentencing in January. 

Syria Rescue Dog: A Syrian puppy rescued by a U.S. airman faced the possibility of deportation to Jordan. However, the personal intervention by an in-law of President Trump and a bipartisan group of lawmakers ensured the dog would remain in the United States. Lara Trump interceded along with a written request led by Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) to the head of the Centers for Disease Control calling for advocating for the dog’s release. The puppy was previously set to be deported to Jordan as the result of a mistake with her paperwork when she arrived at JFK International Airport in August. 

Syria at the UN and Abroad

UNSC Briefing on School Attacks: On Thursday, members of the United Nations Security Council will hold a videoconference titled “attacks against schools: a grave violation of children’s rights.” The briefers are expected to be Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, and a representative from the Global Coalition for the Protection of Education from Attack. According to a UN backgrounder, Syria remains top ranked for countries with the highest numbers of verified attacks on schools and hospitals, as well as being a source of contention on negotiations to produce a draft resolution on attacks against schools.  

Captagon Drug Bust: Last week, port officials in Constanta, Romania seized 4 million pills of the amphetamine captagon on a ship that had sailed from Latakia, Syria. A drug whose trade has ties to Hezbollah, Captagon has been used by jihadi groups and others to enhance their fighting abilities. Romanian authorities also confiscated 1.5 tons of hashish, and the combined totals of the drugs is estimated to be worth €80 million. The operation was carried out in cooperation with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. In July, Italian officials intercepted €1 billion worth of Captagon tablets from three ships that departed from Latakia. Originally, Italian law enforcement blamed ISIS for the production and shipment, however, a recent investigation pointed to Bashar al-Assad’s paternal cousin, Samer Kamal Assad, who operated several Captagon factories in the village of al-Basa. 

Syria on the Ground

Fires Spread In Agriculture Areas: Fires that broke out in western Syria on September 2 continue to spread and expand in the mountainous Syrian coastal areas, destroying thousands of hectares of forests and farmland in Latakia and Hama. The regime has not been observed in making an attempt to stop the fire or mitigate the effects of the fire on the environment and the people through the deployment of military forces or helicopters. The fires have destroyed parts of the Cedar and Artemisia Reserve, threatening rare plants and animals. The White Helmets tweeted that the organization stands ready to put out the fires in all regions of Syria, on the condition that their safety is guaranteed.

Pandemic Spread: The impact of COVID-19 is taking its toll on humanitarian workers on the ground in Syria. U.N. Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, Imran Riza disclosed that over 200 UN staff in Syria have been diagnosed with the virus, where in some cases people were hospitalized and three who were medically evacuated. Overall, Riza said he has seen a ten-fold spike in infections in Syria since he last briefed UN staff two months ago. The Syrian Network for Human Rights recently posted a picture taken by a pro-regime publication showing a group of Syrians crowd a bus in Damascus without wearing masks or maintaining social distancing.  

Russian-Syrian Talks: A Russian diplomatic delegation traveled to Damascus last week. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Bashar al-Assad to discuss enhancing bilateral economic ties. Borisov at a press conference said Moscow has provided the regime a set of economic proposals, with the expectation that an agreement would be reached by the end of the year. 

Turkish Trade Crossing: Tensions continue to grow in northern Syria over the decision by the Turkish government to open a trade gate on the border between Turkey and Syria’s northeastern town of Ras al-Ain. Last week, the local council of Ras al-Ain announced the start of imports and exports through the new gate on the northern side of the city. Previously, the city council had suspended work to protest the decision by the Turkish army to give control of the commercial border crossing to the al-Hamzat Division, which does not have a connection to the city’s residents. Counter protests were held by supporters of the al-Hamzat Division who called for the toppling of the city council.

Kurdish Unity Talks: Negotiations between the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces and other non-PYD Kurdish factions are reportedly moving forward. Kurdish National Unity Parties, an umbrella group tied to the PYD and the Kurdish National Council have reportedly completed a second round of Kurdish unity talks. Preparations are underway for a third round discussion on administration issues. Talks between the PYD and KNC have been ongoing since November 2019.  

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. 

COVID-19 Response: The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) recently took to social media to show its response to the spread of COVID-19 among Syrian refugees in Turkey. In a video, SAMS shows deliveries of PPE supplies they said go to all Turkish provinces hosting refugees. The supplies are namely facial masks and equipment for medical personnel at health facilities that provide care to refugees and the host communities. 

Reconstruction Projects: USAID recently disclosed how the agency is providing humanitarian assistance for agriculture production. Through its Advancing Agricultural Markets in Syria (AAMS) program, Syrian farmers in northern and northeastern areas are providing training and grants to improve cultivation and boost food production. AAMS also provides technical and financial support to food processors and their businesses The agency showed how women who have participated in the program have formed a network to collectively purchase equipment and inputs, share the labor needed to produce marketable products, and attain competitive contracts for their goods. 

For Sama: Syrian activist Waad Al-Kateeb, co-director of Oscar-nominated documentary For Sama, was the subject of a profile by Vogue. Waad highlighted that despite forced exile from Aleppo to the United Kingdom she is dedicated to three ventures: a fiction project related to Syria, a new documentary, and Action for Sama, a non-profit organization that seeks to end the deliberate targeting of healthcare facilities in Syria. “The most important thing is to maintain the conversation about Syria,” Al-Kateab said. The Department of State posted the interview on Twitter noting it was proud to host Waad for a screening of For Sama in 2019.  

Analysis

How U.S. Sanctions Can Crack the Syrian Regime”: Adham Sahloul, Sana Sekkarie, and Sandy Alkoutami refute claims made by those that argue the Caesar Act will hurt Syrian civilians in a piece for Foreign Affairs, by using their collective expertise to show the efficacy of the sanctions in targeting Assad and his criminal regime.

Biden must fix Obama’s biggest foreign policy failure”: Josh Rogin’s latest piece for The Washington Post delves into the past policy failures of previous administrations and concludes that a Biden presidency must use “U.S. leadership and leverage to force better outcomes.”

Assad and Russia Deliberately Exacerbate Crisis As COVID-19 Ravages Idlib”: Isabel Ivanescu writes for the Institute For The Study Of War on the deliberate actions by Russia and Assad to worsen the pandemic and humanitarian crisis in Idlib, while applying renewed military pressure.

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