Syria Cessation of Hostilities (COH) Hotline Fail: Ceasefire Violations in the Land of Pepsi (Updated)

Posted: 1:49 pm EDT
Updated 6:54 pm EDT
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Via Ceasefire Violations in the Land of Pepsi

On Monday, Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid called the hotline number advertised by the State Department’s Twitter account (1-202-736-7829) to report a series of Russian airstrikes on villages in southern Hama province earlier in the day.

The first State Department employee to answer the phone told Osama, in stilted Arabic, that he had the “wrong number” before disconnecting the line.

Osama redialed the same number, and another employee answered the call.

“Ok sir, I’m a Syrian journalist and I’d like to report a breach of the hudna [ceasefire] involving multiple airstrikes in the countryside south of Hama city—at the area where Hama governorate meets northern Homs province,” Osama said. [For additional reporting on this reported ceasefire violation, the Hama News Agency’s coverage is here.]

During the four-minute phone call, the operator struggled to ask basic questions regarding the incident.

At one point, when attempting to ask Osama if the strikes had resulted in any casualties, the operator instead said what appeared to be an accidental string of expletives.

Osama explained that local residents believed that Russian planes were responsible for the airstrikes based on the “intensity of the strikes” and the “number of planes” participating. Following this detailed explanation, the operator replied: “Russian.”

During the call Osama told the operator the name of the village (Hirbinifsah) four times and spelled it out.

However, when Osama asked whether the operator knew where the village was, he responded: “Yes, Harb Bebsi,” the latter being the word for “Pepsi” in Arabic.

The incident above obviously made news and also made it to the Daily Press Briefing. So, it looks like the Syria Cessation of Hostilities  (COH) Team is running as a Task Force at the State Department. This was set up in such a hurry that  no one vetted the volunteers for Arabic proficiency? There’s a question of language but also time difference? And apparently, the phone number is not a free phone number? We feel bad for the volunteers at the Task Force Syria COH team but we feel even worse for the folks who called in, and were amazed, not in the good way, with their reception.

So, contrary to what Mr. Toner says in the DPB, we understand that the Syria COH group is not/not a Task Force.   The Syria Cessation of Hostilities (COH) Team is run by the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) as a “Coordination Team.”  We hope this is not run by the office who can’t even keep its own interns. Our Foggy Bottom nightingale calls this whole thing dumb asking “who exactly is going to be emailing or calling to report violations?” You really think people are going to be inclined to give Uncle Sam their phone numbers and email addresses? Seriously?

Via the DPB:

QUESTION: — over the weekend, you guys published this phone number, these contact numbers for people to call in or to write in and report violations of the ceasefire, and apparently, some reporters from one news outlet, who were actually calling not just to – they were actually calling to report what they said were violations, ran into some problems with – apparently with some limited – with the person on the other end not having particularly great Arabic. Is this something that you’re aware of and —

MR TONER: Absolutely.

QUESTION: — if it is an issue, what’s being done to address it?

MR TONER: Well, so as you noted, we did – in order to help monitor the cessation of hostilities in Syria, we did set up an information hotline that was staffed 24/7 where violations could be reported I think via a number of different apps, also phone, email, text, WhatsApp, Telegram and Google Voice, and the information hotline was part of our broader Syria team, and it was staffed by State Department personnel, some of whom spoke or speak Arabic. We have received reports of violations and obviously added them to or fed them into the overall – the pipeline or the task force that is monitoring the ceasefire and reviewed every allegation. But as you note, there were some language issues amongst some of the volunteers. And granted, these are – these, again, are State Department employees who are doing this in addition to their usual jobs, but we are aware that there were some language issues, as you note, and we’re working to correct those, obviously, because it’s important that we have Arabic speakers who are able to field incoming calls.

QUESTION: Was that not a requirement?

MR TONER: It was, just – but given the time limits on setting this up, probably some of the language skills weren’t properly vetted. It just was people who couldn’t – they were having a hard time —

QUESTION: All right. And you said the people that are staffing this are volunteering their time to staff it?

MR TONER: That’s right.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. Well, that’s interesting. But then again, I mean, as wonderful as that is, if they can’t speak the language then —

MR TONER: Agreed. We should have people who – we should have people – agree. So we’re working to address that.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: And why didn’t you set it up in the region in one of the embassies?

MR TONER: I’m sorry, the hotline?

QUESTION: This center, this hotline. With the time difference and the – with the language —

MR TONER: It’s a valid question. I don’t know. I don’t know. I think that just given the – I have no idea. I mean, usually – I’m guessing that this is run out of the Ops Center which has all the phone banks set up, can easily take incoming calls, but – and has, frankly, the facilities able to put together a task force like this but —

QUESTION: Is it a free phone number? And if not, how many cents a minute does it cost to call from Aleppo, say?

MR TONER: I believe it should be a free phone number.


MR TONER: I’ll check on all this. This is good – these are all valid questions. I just don’t have a lot of information in front of me.

QUESTION: And if it isn’t?

MR TONER: I think it’s a free phone number. It has —


MR TONER: It’s not?


MR TONER: Oh, okay.

QUESTION: Mark, are all of these staffers volunteers or is it a mix?

MR TONER: Yes. I believe they are volunteers. Is that what you’re questioning, or that they’re not?

QUESTION: I’m not (inaudible).


QUESTION: Mark, are you sure that they’re doing this in addition to doing their regular jobs? I mean, if you’re doing —

MR TONER: That’s what I was told, yeah.


QUESTION: Could I just follow up on the ceasefire itself?

QUESTION: Sorry, Said. What’s the number? Do you have that?

MR TONER: I don’t have it in front of me, sorry. I completely failed on this issue, I apologize.