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Executive Summary for May 23rd

We review key events in Syria, including a report revealing that nearly 60,000 detainees have died in government detention, a secret visit by a top U.S. commander to northern Syria and an ultimatum by rebel groups for the Assad regime to halt its hostilities.

Published on May 23, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

60,000 Detainees Have Died in Government Prisons: Monitor

At least 60,000 people have died in Syrian government detention facilities since the start of the five-year conflict, a report by the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights revealed.

“No fewer than 60,000 detainees were martyred … either as a result of direct bodily torture, or denial of food and medicine,” the Observatory said in a statement released on Saturday, May 21.

The Observatory’s director, Rami Abdulrahman, said the organization calculated the total by adding up death tolls provided by sources inside government jails and security services.

At least 20,000 of the victims died at the government’s notorious Sednaya prison near Damascus, a facility well known for the use of torture and political killings.

“We know large numbers of people have died in detention in Syria,” Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“The only way to get to the bottom of the numbers question is to allow for independent monitors into the detention centers,” he added.

In 2013, a Syrian defector known as Caesar, who had previously worked as a photographer in government detention facilities, smuggled out tens of thousands of photos taken between May 2011 and August 2013 showing at least 6,786 separate individuals who have died in government prisons.

“Whether it is 60,000 or 30,000, the number is just huge. Despite the Caesar photos, the multiple reports, there is no international traction,” Houry said.

Investigators from the United Nations said in February the reports of mass killings in government prisons amount to a state policy of “extermination” of the civilian population.

Reuters was not able to reach Syrian government officials for a comment.

Top U.S. Commander Makes Secret Visit to Syria

The new commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, secretly visited northern Syria to assess U.S. troops and the organization of local Arab and Kurd fighters combating the Islamic State group.

“I have responsibility for this mission, and I have responsibility for the people that we put here,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel said in an interview on Saturday. “So it’s imperative for me to come and see what they’re dealing with – to share the risk they are dealing with.”

Votel is the highest-ranking U.S. military commander to enter Syria since the U.S. launched a campaign against the Islamic State group in 2014. The U.S. has no official combat units in Syria and no diplomatic relations with the Syrian government. Its military mission in Syria has been enveloped in secrecy for much of the past two years.

FSA Rebels Give Regime 48-Hour Deadline to Halt Violence

The Free Syrian Army gave the regime a 48-hour deadline on Saturday to halt violence against the group’s strongholds in the suburbs of Damascus or they would abandon the “cessation of hostilities.”

In a statement signed by nearly 40 rebel factions operating across the country, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) said they would consider the cease-fire to be effectively over if the assault on areas under its control by government forces and its Hezbollah allies was not stopped within the next 48 hours.

The signatories include Western and Turkish-backed groups operating in rebel-held areas in the country’s north and south, and said that once the 48-hour deadline finished, rebels would respond with “all the legitimate means to defend the civilians living in these areas,” Reuters reported.

For the first time since the implementation of the U.S. and Russia-brokered truce in February, government forces have in the past week launched an assault on the besieged suburb of Daraya and have captured a strategic area of besieged Eastern Ghouta.

In the statement, rebel brigades said they were considering withdrawing from a “futile political process which gives legitimate cover to continue the crimes and massacres by the criminal Assad regime and its allies.”

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