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Syria Digest: January 13, 2020

(7 minute read)

Syria in the Nation's Capital

Biden Administration: Future advisors on U.S.-Syria policy to President-elect Joe Biden were announced in the past week. Former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, has been tapped to handle the Middle East portfolio for the National Security Council. McGurk resigned from his post in December 2018 in response to President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Since then, McGurk has gone on record as a strong supporter of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an ardent critic of Turkey, and had claimed that Idlib Province was “the world’s largest terrorist haven” controlled by al-Qaeda. Jon Finer, who has been chosen as Deputy National Security Adviser, co-authored an op-ed with McGurk calling for the U.S. to allow Syrian Kurdish fighters to seek refuge in the United States. However, Finer differs from McGurk when he wrote two years ago that he agreed with Trump’s decision to extricate U.S. forces from Syria.  U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn will not be staying on with the incoming administration. Rayburn confirmed this week he will soon be leaving his post as part of a transition of personnel that is natural from one administration to another.  

CIA Nominee: Former Deputy Secretary of State, William J. Burns, was announced as the president-elect’s choice to serve as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Currently serving as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Amb. Burns penned a critique of President Trump’s foreign policy in December 2019, criticizing his initial decision to withdraw from Syria, fearing the ultimate result would be the resurrection of ISIS. Later, he co-authored an op-ed with incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan predicting the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani would cause Iran to “turn up the heat” against American forces in Syria. 

Roebuck on the Record: Ambassador Bill Roebuck, the former deputy special envoy to defeat ISIS, gave an exclusive interview with Defense One to discuss the U.S. track record in Syria. Roebuck, who retired last fall, sees mixed results for the U.S., with relations with the Syrian Democratic Forces that have been repaired since the redeployment of U.S. forces in October 2019. However, he warned that unless the United States reinvests in stabilization assistance, ISIS may reemerge. Roebuck based this on a view that while the U.S. did a lot to help militarily, Syrians take the view that they didn't help them rebuild. 

Syria at the UN and Abroad

Chemical Weapons: The United Nations Security Council held its monthly update on the status of Syria’s chemical weapons program. In her briefing, the High Representative for Disarmament, Izumi Nakamitsu, stated that Syria’s latest submission to the UN cannot be considered accurate and complete per the Chemical Weapons Convention. Despite some progress, 19 issues remain outstanding, one of which pertains to a chemical weapons production facility, to which the Syrian government did not respond. She noted that future deployments by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will be determined by the evolution of COVID-19 in Syria. 

Refugees Flow to Europe: The journey of a group of Syrians attempting to make their way to Europe nearly took a deadly turn. Traffickers placed 55 Syrians on an inflatable boat on a destination towards Italy. However, Al-Jazeera reported the boat found itself stranded off the coast of Albania in rough waters for hours in the Vjosa River delta. Albanian authorities successfully rescued the group with no lives lost. It was noted the number of intercepted people passing through Albania more than tripled in 2020 compared with the previous year.

Hamas Outreach to Assad: Hezbollah reportedly held several meetings with a senior Hamas official in Lebanon to attempt to reconcile the group’s relations with the Assad regime. This renewed push comes following negotiations in 2019 failing over demands made by Syrian officials that Hamas could not meet, namely for the group to distance its relationship with Qatar and Turkey. Palestinian outreach to Damascus has proven more successful for Fatah, which in July 2018 sent a delegation to meet with regime officials to discuss bilateral issues and the status of Palestinians in Syria. Beginning in 2000, Hamas received strong support from the Syrian government until 2012 when it was kicked out of Damascus for refusing to take sides in the Syrian war.   

WHO Uses Syrian Airline: This week, news broke of the alleged use of a U.S.-sanctioned Syrian airline by the World Health Organization (WHO). The Independent reported that the head of WHO Libya, Elizabeth Hoff, appeared to be using a Cham Wings Airlines plane to transport humanitarian supplies from Dubai to Libya. The same plane was identified by a United Nations panel of experts to have violated a UN arms embargo at least three times in 2020 and twice in 2019 by transporting fighters and weapons into Libya. The airline was designated by the United States in 2016 for transporting Iranian militia fighters and military equipment into Syria.

Syria on the Ground

PYD-SOC Dialogue: A break in the diplomatic impasse between the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) could occur in 2021. SDC head Ilham Ahmad announced that one of the goals of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is to establish a joint project with the SOC to make the regions of northern and eastern Syria a “shared democracy”. She did not provide specifics regarding steps that needed to be taken or a timeline for given objectives. SOC has not made an official statement on the issue.    

Children Arrested in Ghouta: Reports surfaced that the Fourth Division was responsible for the arrest of four children between the ages of 13 and 14 on the edge of Douma. They were picked up for attempting to collect electrical wires in an area known as al-Ab Farms and sell them in the town. The children were taken to a checkpoint controlled by the Fourth Division and held in custody for four days then released. The children were reported to have suffered incidents of torture and forced labor. 

Regime Fuel Cuts: In the aftermath of an Iranian oil tanker arriving in Baniyas this week, the Assad regime has imposed new fuel restrictions to address shortages from the lack of oil imports. The Syrian ministry of petroleum and mineral resources announced it will cut the amount of diesel by 17% and the amount of fuel by 24% it is distributing to regime-held areas until new supplies arrive. The regime did not say when fuel rationing would be halted. 

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. 

From Syria to Canada: After fleeing Aleppo with his family, Yamen Bai arrived in Canada with a dream to play ice hockey.  He was met with generosity from his fellow Canadians, who banded together to fundraise for equipment for Yamen, to allow him to play in the minor league. The fundraiser was started by his coach and raised enough money and equipment for both Yamen and two other children.

Operation Breathe: Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of MedGlobal, is fundraising for Operation Breathe, to benefit COVID-19 patients in Syria. The donations will be used towards purchasing 200 oxygen concentrators, which are used to help COVID-19 patients breathe. Syria is suffering from a lack of oxygen concentrators, and these machines will be able to extract oxygen from the air for use by multiple patients. 

Analysis

Mapping Local Governance In Syria: A Baseline Study”:  A new study published by the United Nations in consultation with the National Agenda for the Future of Syria (NAFS), concluded that the future of local governance in Syria is increasingly centered around a form of democratic decentralization.

A New Palestinian Community?: Syria’s Uprising And Conflict, From The Perspective Of The Palestinian Camps”: Abdullah Al-Khatteb, Tom Rollins, and Abdelrahman Shaheen write for Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung on how the Syrian war has impacted the Palestinian community.

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